Tests make us crazy



If you don’t realize it’s crazy, If you can’t understand the source
Don’t reach too fast for the answers, ‘Cause it gets worse
- Headstones, Unsound

Some of us act crazy when we meet tests.  Call it test anxiety or emotionality or whatever - it is a curious phenomenon.

We recently held a mock GED write at one of my workplaces.  Though only one learner actually had a seizure, almost all of them suffered enough stress to score well below what their classwork would predict.  This included people who had written the same indicator test in the same setting surrounded by many of the same people.  The mock invigilator also reported feeling a growing sense of anxiety as the testing progressed.  (I confess to pacing a bit outside the room, but mostly I was successful at distracting myself with paperwork and such.)

The tests had absolutely no significance.  They really were "pretend" things.  We aren't empowered to certify learners, and had no intention of treating them differently based on their results.  We weren't even particularly interested in recording their results.  We did it purely for the experience, and in the hope that it might lessen some of the anxiety they felt on the day of the real tests.

There was some last minute cramming, which is interesting given the GED's deliberate focus away from testing memory.  For the most part, these are skill-based, multiple choice tests in which learners draw facts, inference or conclusions from information presented as prose, maps, charts or diagrams.  The tests go so far as to provide common math formulas and calculator instructions.  In other words, there's just not that much to remember.

There was also a certain amount of... um... piety or superstition or mysticism going on.  A couple of my learners expressed the view that they "felt" they were going to pass "at least two" without being sure which two.  They hoped - hard - for the best.  Even I, when I had a chance to mark my learners' tests after work, made sure I was listening to positive music I particularly enjoyed.  The next day, when it emerged that I had two more to mark, I remember feeling a spark of worry that I wouldn't be able to play my music loudly enough for them to receive the positive vibes or... whatever.

We go crazy when it comes to tests.

Here's one more thought.

I came to this work via basic adult literacy.  In that domain, I was always aware of the level of textual or mathematical difficulty my learners were able to deal with comfortably.  In the jargon of the work, I knew their independent literacy and numeracy levels.  In point of fact - probably due to the advantage that comes with doing tasks in context - my learners often functioned at a higher level when they were out in the real world.  But the point is, I knew how they were doing (as did they).

But when it comes to GED testing, I have no sure knowledge of how well they will perform.  A few people do better than expected: most do worse.  And the cause of this seems to have nothing to do with the content of our classwork.

I marked my learners mock GED tests with hope and trepidation and a carefully created WMP playlist because I really didn't know how well they would do even though they were people I knew well and had worked closely with over weeks and months and even years.  I mean, I knew what they knew in terms of science or social studies or geometry.  I just didn't know how they would test.

Tests are strange things.  They make the world a strange place.  They make strangers of us to each other.

Like you, I've read lots about test anxiety and stuffed my learners with Good Advice.  That rarely does much good, can't hold a candle to our deep-seated superstitions, and runs the real risk of blaming the victims.

I mean, I'm a sensible, grown man, and yet I was worried about marking the tests while not listening to the Headstones.  Deep breathing and positive self-reinforcement don't cure crazy like that.

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