Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Sitting for the Test

As a prospective doctoral student, I’ve recently learned that universities require the GRE as a “gatekeeping” measure.  Despite my begging and whining about such an exam not being a reflection of anything I am professionally, my application will not be complete without it, so yesterday I took it for the second time in my life. I vaguely remember taking it the first time—it was a cold, Saturday morning in November, 1992.  I sharpened about five number two pencils and hopped the T to Roxbury, MA. The memory is fuzzy after that. I suspect, however,  yesterday’s experience will never suffer the same fuzzy fate. Taking a standardized exam in the age of high stakes testing dialed my empathy barometer way up and gave me a lot to think about going forward. 

I waltzed into the exam with a very cavalier attitude.  No way was I studying for this—I’m far too busy doing the important work of living than to have to spend time relearning algebraic equations and arcane vocabulary that might help me score a few points higher.  I went in thinking that my quantitative scores would be what they would be and I’d rock the verbal reasoning segment.

It turns out that I hadn’t forgotten as much math as I originally thought and I rather enjoyed puzzling through the problems that made sense to me.  The reality check came when I worked on the verbal reasoning segments, the ones I was so confident I’d ace, and found passages that flat out stopped me in my tracks. 

One passage read like it came straight from the Journal of Paleontology.  The article was a scholarly analysis chocked full of content specific archeological terms peppered with all sorts of erudite, multi-syllabic scientific jargon.  To put it mildly, I didn’t get it.  And what was worse, I didn’t get what the questions were asking me either—and there were three questions on this one passage!

I started to sweat a little when I got to this section of the test.  I read and reread that passage.  I heard my inner voice assuring me that I had all of the skills and strategies I needed to be able to do this successfully.  But try as I might, I couldn’t make it make sense and in thinking about why, the reason came blinking into my psyche like an alarm sounding in the middle of the night: BACKGROUND KNOWLEDGE.  My boys skipped the dinosaur fascination and I never had one of my own.  I have zero interest in archeology and paleontology and know less than nothing about these topics.  I couldn’t make this make sense because I didn’t know a thing about what I was reading about. 

And that’s when I realized I had a choice to make.  I could sit there and invest all sorts of intellectual energy and time in these three questions and run the risk of still getting them wrong or I could start filling in bubbles and move on to questions that I felt more confident about answering correctly.  In the end, it was a no brainer.  Upward and onward.

But as I soldiered on, I couldn’t help but think about the masses of children taking the ELA.  How often are they faced with the same angst that I felt?  How much does strategizing impact the outcome of the test?  Would more students do better if they knew when to give up the battle and when to put up a fight?  And exactly what role does background knowledge play in the overall achievement results reported on these exams?  Is the real issue effective readership or is it an issue of cultural literacy?  Might students do better if they had a more well rounded knowledge of the world?

In spite of the fact that I provided ETS with all sorts of answers, the experience of taking the GRE raised more questions than could be answered in a four hour sitting.  But the biggest questions of all are these: How important are the answers?  Can we improve our schools without them?   

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