Test Gatekeeping

This was written sometime between March and April of 2009. As part of our practicum, we have to do an observation of a fellow student, write up an observation, and then write a reflective response to each other’s observation.

My fellow student observed me give an exam to my students and was surprised, but highly complimentary of my practice of “gatekeeping”. A student just doesn’t get to turn in a test. First I check the test, scan for unforced errors and blank responses. If the first, I underline some key term that should trigger a recognition, if the problem is just that they misread the question. If the second, I just hand it back to them and say “You know how to do this. Or you know how to start doing this. Go get it done.” Some students whine, some ask quiet questions, and some look at my underlined term and gasp out “Thank you!” as they run back to their seat and fix the problem.

My colleague asked if I would continue doing this throughout the semester. Would I always provide this support, or as the class progressed, would I let them go out on their own? I answered the question in this reflection.

Ten years later, this is one practice I haven’t changed even slightly. I make tough tests, and I make the students try hard, sending them back with advice, pointing out small mistakes, giving them a hint if they are lower level. And I wouldn’t change a thing. It’s amazing to see this again and be reminded of how consistent my philosophy has been–and that it does come from my years in test prep.

One change–when a student asks me to check it for them, I still give it a once over. I’m nice that way.

I decided to focus my reflection on your comments about my test “scaffolding”, my practice of reviewing a math test before the student hands it in.

I didn’t mention this earlier, but I have only actively reviewed every student’s test for the past two chapter tests–and even then, only done it both times for fourth period. This test, I actively scanned all students in both classes before they could submit.

I began doing it because I noticed so many struggling students leaving questions blank when I knew that they knew how to do the math. I have spent five years teaching kids to take tests and have seen emotional responses that defy all logic knock down performance considerably. Some examples:

  • “I don’t know how to do this problem. See? I KNEW I didn’t know how to do this problem. I TOLD myself I didn’t. I was right!”
  • “Should I try this? No, it couldn’t be that. If it were that, then it would mean I knew how to do the problem, and I know I don’t know how to do this problem.”
  • “I CAN’T DO THIS PROBLEM I CAN”T DO THIS PROBLEM I HATE MATH I HATE MATH”
  • “Eh, I did enough work to pass. I’m done. I’m bored.”
  • “Oh, my god, I thought I knew how to do this problem but it doesn’t work! I know NOTHING.” (instead of seeing if, you know, maybe a minor algebra mistake happened somewhere.)
  • “God, I’m done. I’m done. Thank god. I’m done. I’m turning it in now. Thank god.”

None of these thoughts make it into the conscious brain to allow the student to see logically how goofy their responses are, how maybe they should calm down and try some other approaches, take their time and think through the math, check their work for mistakes, or, god forbid, remember what they learned in class. No, the responses all pass through the brain at light speed, leaving behind despair and antagonism, affecting students’ decisions without letting them know what’s happening.

As a math teacher giving an assessment, my primary responsibility is to determine how much math each student knows. If I have to make them hork it up like a fur ball or punch it out of them via Heimlich maneuver, so be it. But to the extent possible, I will not allow their emotional response to determine their grade and my knowledge of their performance.

Many math teachers believe that learning math involves a degree of emotional maturity. As students progress, the thinking goes, they must learn how to accept responsibility for their performance. Maturity involves taking responsibility for one’s learning.

I have parented a teenager, and this sort of thinking makes me laugh. If I allow these kids to turn in their lesser effort, I am doing them a favor. They aren’t punished by the lower grade. They are vindicated. See? They were RIGHT. They didn’t know the math. Stupid fool teacher, and more importantly, stupid fool parents for thinking otherwise.

By insisting they can do the work, I prove two things. First, I am the boss. I will not allow them to get away with a lesser effort, whether that effort is due to lack of interest, fear of failure, or total panic. Second, I am right. They can do the work. They will get a higher grade.

The struggling students aren’t the only ones who benefit from scrutiny. Strong and even mid-level students make unforced errors, and these students genuinely appreciate my checking. These are the ones that go “Ack!” when I point out the word “line” and they realize they’ve solved a linear function as an exponential one and say “Thanks!” with enthusiasm.

But struggling students see math as a war, and in their minds, their failure is a form of victory. Lecturing them about failure doesn’t work nearly as well as showing them that they already have the knowledge to avoid failure–or at least mitigate the disaster. I would far rather engage in a humorous tug of war with a student who wants to turn in a math test than I would lecture them about an F after the fact. For one thing, even the weakest students appreciate the reality of a higher grade. For another, I have proven conclusively that I was right and THEY WERE WRONG. This gives me the credibility advantage and gives us a shared reference point. “Yeah, yeah, sure you can’t do it. Didn’t we have this conversation last test? Sit back down and think. You can do it.” This is already happening with some students. Others are still in the argument mode, but we’ll get there.

So when do I get around to allowing them to go cold turkey? With the stronger students, of course, the task will be easier. Over time, I will talk to them privately, mention SAT scores and the downside of not having a teacher check their work. Their own motivation will do the trick.

But with the struggling students, so long as it affects their grades, I will continue to force math out of them no matter how long it takes. My primary objective as a teacher is to be sure that I am capturing their math knowledge. Independence and self-direction are nice to haves, but they come second, in my mind.

However, if my test prep experience has any relevance here, over time, the struggling students will start to realize they know more than they think they know. By having test productivity forced out of them kicking and screaming, they’ll begin to accept that by golly, they do know math and will start asking small questions to clarify and taking on more responsibility. That’s the plan. When the struggling students are at the point of handing their test to me and saying “Hey, could you check this for me? I want to be sure I got everything”, I’ll start telling them to check their own work and count it a happy day.

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