As a public school teacher, I’m confronted with an awful lot of urgent questions.
Sometimes all at once and in rapid fire succession.
But perhaps the most frequent one I get is this:
“Mr. Singer, will this be on the test?”
Will this be on the test?
In 8th grade Language Arts, we’re discussing the relative merits of the death penalty vs. life imprisonment – or the history behind the Nazi invasion of Holland – or the origin of Dill Harris’ obsession with Boo Radley — and this little kid wants to know if any of it is going to be on the test!?
What in the almighty universe does he think we’re doing here!?
I pause, take a deep breath and reflect.
After all, it could be worse. The kiddo could have interrupted the flow just to ask to go to the bathroom.
So I try to put a positive spin on the inquiry.
It does give me some important information about this student. It tells me that he is really concerned about doing well in my class.
The kids that don’t care about that, the ones who are more preoccupied with survival or fear or malnutrition or a thousand other adult cares foisted too early on childish shoulders – those are the ones I really worry about.
But this kid isn’t like that at all. He just wants to know the rules.
On the other hand, it also tells me that he really doesn’t care about what we’re talking about.
Oh, this student cares about getting a good grade, to be judged proficient and to move on to the next task in a series of Herculean labors. But does he care about the tasks or does he just want to end the labor?
He sees school like a tiger sees a circus – a series of hoops to jump through in order to get a juicy hunk of meat as a reward at the end of the day.
For him, our class contains no magic, no mystery – it’s just a pure extrinsic transaction.
I tell you X and then you spit it back up again. Then I’m supposed to give you a gold star and send you on your way to do things that really matter.
And I suppose it bothers me this much because it’s a way of looking at things that ignores the larger context of education.
If we must see things as either assignments or tests, as either work toward a goal or a reward for working toward a goal – well, then isn’t everything in life a test, really?
After all, every action has its own rewards and significance.
Looked at from that vantage point, one can feel almost sorry for these sorts of students. Because in a matter of minutes the bell will ring and they will leave the classroom to encounter this awesome experience we call life.
It’s a collection of majesty and the mundane that will be unfiltered through bell schedules and note taking, homework and assignments.
It will just be.
And no matter what it consists of these children will be tried, tested and judged for it.
Some of it will be tests of skill. They’ll encounter certain obstacles that they’ll have to overcome.
Can they express themselves in writing? Can they compose an email, a text, a Facebook post that gets across what they’re really trying to say?
Presumably, they’ll want to apply for a job someday. That requires typing a cover letter, a resume, and being able to speak intelligently during an interview.
But even beyond these professional skills, they’ll come into contact with other human beings. And what they say and how they interact will be at least partially determined by what they’ve learned both in and out of the classroom.
People will judge them based on what kind of person they think they are – is this someone knowledgeable about the world, do they have good judgement, can they think logically and solve a problem, do they have enough background knowledge about the world to be able to make meaning and if they don’t know something (as inevitably everyone must) do they know where to find the answers they seek?
When they come into social contact with others, will they have digested enough knowledge and experience to form interesting, empathetic characters and thus will they be able to experience deep relationships?
Will they be victims of their own ignorance, able to be pushed around and tricked by any passing intellect or will they be the masters of their own inner space, impervious to easy manipulation?
Will they be at the mercy of history and politics or will they be the captains of consciousness and context molding educated opinions about justice, ethics and statecraft?
Because for these students all of that, all of their lives really, is an assessment in a way. And the grades aren’t A, B, C, D or F. There is no Advanced, Proficient, Basic or Below Basic. It is not graded on a curve.
It’s a test that’s timed in the minutes they breath and in each pump their hearts push blood throughout their bodies.
This exam will assess everything they do, everything they think, everything that’s done to them and every action they do or think in response.
This is an evaluation with the highest stakes. They will not get to take it again. And if they fail, their grade will be final.
But what they don’t seem to realize is that no matter how they score, the result will be the same as it is for everyone who’s ever been born – it will be terminal.
Because each of these students, and only these students, as they grow and mature will have the power to determine ultimately what that score will be.
We are all judged and evaluated, but it is our own judgements that we have to live with – and this passive acceptance of being tested and this petty goal of grade grubbing your life away, it denies your individual agency, your freedom of thought.
So, you ask if this will be on the test?
The answer is yes.
Everything is on the test.
But you’re asking the wrong question.
That’s what I really want to say.
That’s what I want to shout at a world that sees learning as nothing but a means to a job and education as nothing but the fitting of cogs to a greasy machine.
Yet invariably, when the question comes I usually narrow it all down to just this simple answer.
“Will this be on the test?
The test will measure whether you’re an informed, engaged, productive citizen of the world.
It will take place in schools and bars and hospitals and in dorm rooms and in places of worship.
You will be tested on first dates, in job interviews, while watching football and while scrolling through your twitter feed.
The test will test your ability to think about things other than celebrity marriages, whether you’ll be easily persuaded by empty political rhetoric and whether you’ll be able to place your life and your community in a broader context.
The test will last your entire life and it will be comprised of the millions of decisions that when taken together make your life, yours.
And everything, everything will be on it.
I know right, so pay attention.”
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