Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Tests and Time

"You cannot blink.”

This is what my teaching counterpart, Ms. Olif, said to me a year ago when I first asked what it is like to proctor an exam here. In the past year, I have proctored a wide-variety of tests, from simple vocab quizzes to regional-wide exams. This experience of administering tests, time and time again, has me slipping into those old, comfortable feelings of futility and failure that come along with being a Peace Corps volunteer.

In the first 15 minutes I think,”Whew, these kids are good. Look at them reading that test. They can do this!” I then retreat into recreating TV episodes and movies in my mind as I gaze across the jilbabed room. Similar to Hurley re-writing "The Empire Strikes Back" with all that extra time LOST on the island, I’ve already mentally re-written a good portion of "Ferris Bueller’s Day Off".

Unfortunately, after a few more minutes, the first pair of eyes go. And the next. And the thing is, they never had to learn to get creative, so tactics stagnate at the obvious. I find myself getting disappointed not only with the fact that students are cheating, but that they lack panache when doing so. I wonder if my efforts would be more efficiently spent in tutoring students on more intricate information retrieval methods. For instance, it might do them good to sit them down and watch that Growing Pains episode where Mike Seaver writes his history test info on the bottom of his sneakers.

I’ve never experienced actual war, but I find that proctoring is an intense battle. It is a battle between the students’ desire to seek out or offer an answer (not necessarily the correct one) to their friends, and my incredible ability to sit or stand for hours staring at them, thinking about anything and nothing. It is no contest really. I win every time. The kids hate it. 

In this battle, I take pointers for my proctoring strategy from Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War”:
  • Laying Plans/Calculations. I make the stakes clear. Prior to each test, I describe specific examples of cheating: looking at a book, looking at another paper, asking or giving a friend an answer. Three times spoken to results in the test being taken. I also give them the old motivational speech, “PD – percaya diri (believe in yourself)!” Occasionally, I make them all chant together,"I can DO it!” before handing out the test.
  • Tactical Dispositions/Positioning. Get to high ground. I either stand for the whole exam or position myself on the stage-like podium we have in most classes. A student’s first move is to try to get out of my line of sight, but I make it impossible for them. We also usually split the class and occasionally make various versions of tests.
  • Weak Points & Strong. Remain vigilant. Current Indonesian teachers lose the battle here because they get easily fatigued from watching for sudden moves or simply give up. Turns out, I am really excellent at vigilance, so long as I can think about the icing cookie cup from Mrs. Fields while doing so (stock tip: investment in a Mrs. Fields branch in Indonesia is a sound business decision, at least as long as I'm here). 
  • The Use of Spies. Make eye contact with the surrounding suppliers and give them the head shake that they can’t give anything away. They will be taken down if they comply, so it's best if they just turn to your side now.  As old Sun Tzu states, “All wars are, at their heart, information wars.”
I straddle between disappointment in my students and in myself in these battles. The irony is not lost on me that I am here to promote peace, and all I can think about is shutting down anyone who tries to cross my proctoring path. There is something unsettling for me in that. Being an American presiding over, policing, and passing judgment is not the image I was hoping to reinforce during my tenure here.
Why do I care so much? Why do I become a monster who is seemingly out to make life more difficult for a class full of 17-year-olds? 

The Why?
Like most things that happen here that may not initially sit well with me, I remember I have to come at it from a place of respect and understanding. I have to remember where these kids (whom I adore, by the way) are coming from.

  • In the course of their educational career, it is a very real possibility they may never have been told not to cheat, and it might have been encouraged. Here are some excerpts from a local teacher meeting on the subject where it was plain that attitudes on proctoring vary widely:
    • “Cheating is solidarity.”
    • “Every day I teach my students that [cheating] is OK.”
    • “Cheating is a wave that we cannot control.”
    • "Cheating is a virus to the learning process, and it must stop.” 
  • My students are studying 18 subjects in one semester. 18! Last year, seniors sat for regional-wide exams for each subject. They took two tests every day for almost two weeks straight. There is no way they could possibly study for all those tests.
This is only some of the books for one student for first semester.
  • While my teachers and I attempt to “test what we teach”, most other tests I’ve proctored don’t follow this model. My 8-yr old niece and I studied together for her English test, and she got a 54% because the test was on topics the class had not studied yet. How exactly was she supposed to succeed there? 
Tests sometimes are riddled with errors themselves or are unclear. Some of the questions from the regional English exam, were impossible for me to answer because they just didn’t make any sense.
Here is a question for the upcoming Grade XI final exam. The test was made by another school, and we are mandated to use it.

  • For regular tests, there is really no motivation to study since failing just means taking another remedial test, and then maybe some sort of exercise until the teacher caves in and just gives the minimum grade to pass. There really is no failing. No penalty.
I was befuddled by one of my poorest English students always finishing tests so quickly until I realized he was just throwing any answer down so he could get the hell outta there and hit the futsal court.  Once I understood what he was doing, I had a new-found respect for him since I realized it’s probably exactly what I’d do in his position.    
This is probably where I'd rather be during my English test also.
So - there I am, standing there giving my evil eye, when secretly, I am wondering what I would do if the black converse and Sponge Bob bobby socks were on the other foot. Perhaps things get ugly so quickly for me because I sort of know I’d be doing the same thing, and I don’t like facing that. Or maybe I seek the validation of them passing on their own to feel like I actually taught them something. But I like to think the main reason I get so riled up about this is because I want better for them. I want them to know they can be better. I want them to feel what it is to succeed, even if it’s just on one measly test.


The good news…it can change
These things may seem silly to Americans reading this, but here are some revolutionary ideas volunteers try to employ in classrooms here that have yielded remarkable results:

  • Giving teachers confidence to make their own tests and not to use ones out of a book or ones made by other schools covering information the students never learned is a good start.
  • Being clear about what constitutes cheating was a conversation I didn’t realize had to happen. After having one class tell me that politely asking a friend for an answer during a test didn’t count as cheating, we had to have a little chat. 
  • Actually preparing students for tests is another significant gain:
    • Telling them when there will be a test
    • Telling them what will be on the test and making it a small amount of information that you have reviewed together A LOT
    • Reviewing answers they got wrong in exercises or exams taken so they can learn not to make those mistakes again
    • Giving frequent, small tests that shows students they can succeed if they do, in fact, study
I am still not at 100% on all items above, and it does require some iota of effort from students.

Exhibit A: This past week, I had a student get a 5% on a test. The kicker is we reviewed all the answers to the test in the class prior. Not great for a teacher’s soul. I went directly for the Snickers bars and episodes of “New Girl”, and I did not pass GO.
After starting to write this entry almost a year ago, I am now at peace with what happens during tests. After all, I can only control what happens in my little classroom.

I am at peace with the National Exam that takes up so much time and misspent energy (as long as it is eradicated within the next five to ten years due to an organized uprising of teachers). It’s one of those things I have to accept for the time being simply because otherwise, I would go crazy. This whole thing is way bigger than me.

Before I leave, though, I can at least try to give each of my students a chance to have a small taste of success as a result of trying on his/her own. Because if there is one thing all those hours and hours staring at these kids during exams while recreating 80s movies in my mind has made clear - these high school students armed with their erasers, rulers, whiteout, and Kero Kero Keroppi jilbab pins -  I just love them.

As long as I keep that in perspective, the rest seems to work itself out.

 “He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight.”  
   - Sun Tzu


Below are pics of seniors finding out if they passed the National Exams from last May. There was a lot of drama, tears, emotional calls to parents, and a proud display of results.

And here are some random pics from a class meeting from last year where classes competed against each other in different sports events. Lots of cheering. 


Girls from class X rocking it on the futsal court.