Standardized tests are a) unchallenging, b) impossible to cheat on, c) rigged, d) only theoretical, or e) all of the above
I have neither seen nor learned what exactly is on the tests that people take in Georgia so what I say can only be taken with a grain of salt, but since there is such a buzz about them right now I have learned quite a bit from talking to people. Both students and teachers take standardized tests; their results decide a lot: whether they graduate school or whether they get a higher certification and therefore a higher salary. A logical system, but it’s clear that some improvements could be made.
I’ll start with the 12th grade exit exams, which are mysterious to me. Mysterious because I had concluded long ago that many of the 12th graders know almost no English. Although there are handfuls of excellent English students, I have been very unsuccessful in communicating with at least half of them (the class has about 35 students). Some of this can be attributed to shyness, but surely not the majority. Because of this, I was honestly very surprised that only two students failed to pass the English exit exam. This means that the rest got 6 out of 10 or above. I had been told beforehand that the exams were VERY easy, only including the simple tenses, but even so, if students can’t easily answer “how are you?” how can they use any tenses at all? Because of this, I have doubts about how challenging this exam really is in all the subjects. On the other hand, even if the students have a written knowledge of easy English grammar, which is entirely possible, this obviously doesn’t translate into fluency or the ability to actually speak the language. This makes me think the tests are only theoretical and prove nothing useful. If students want to study English in university or get a job where they must speak it, this doesn’t help them one bit. Looking at the other side of this, I have a lot of students in the lower classes who consistently do poorly on tests but can speak very well. In my opinion, these students are more practically equipped for jobs than the students who test well but can’t speak. It just doesn’t seem like a good measure to me. Aside from that, I have heard various rumors (and they are just rumors) that these tests are rigged. I was told that if a student gets a wrong answer, the next question will get easier and this continues until the end. If the student still doesn’t get the last (and susbsequently easiest) question right, they fail. If they get it right, they pass. I don’t know if this is the truth, but some people apparently think so. Whether it’s true or not, something like this might help to explain why so many students do literally nothing in class but can still manage to graduate because of one hour-long exam in each subject. In short: these exams don’t seem to give a realistic representation of someone’s smarts OR work ethic. On the plus side, this is the ONLY test in Georgia that I’ve witnessed where cheating is impossible. The computerized tests are monitored and each student has different questions, so they really must study and rely on themselves, which is a healthy thing when it concerns one’s education.
I have some similar things to say about the teacher’s certification exams, which are also multiple choice. I don’t believe these ones are rumored to be rigged, and on the contrary I have heard they are actually difficult. This is good because these teachers will be influencing many children and they need to be as correct as possible. My main concern with these exams is that there is no practical section of the exam, to my knowledge. I think that English teachers should have to pass a separate exam where they must speak and listen in English. Having worked with five Georgian co-teachers now, I have to say that even the best of them have moments of strange pronunciation and poor comprehension skills when spoken to by a native English speaker. For this reason they aren’t able to recognize when things are pronounced wrong in class and therefore can’t correct mistakes. This is the reason TLG and the Peace Corps is here of course, but maybe something could be done on the front end as well, before hard-to-break habits are formed. From my experience, there are some specific things that should be worked out before teachers pass the exam. Having native English speakers give the exams would be helpful, by the way, because of the subtleties of English, and also to obliterate strange, old English phrases and words which have taken over Georgian textbooks (although I now know the definition of “lionize” I have had to break the news to many aghast Georgians that nobody uses that word where I come from). I think that every English teacher should be able to read and communicate all sounds correctly, especially “th” and the “w/v” debacle. Also, special attention should be placed on the vowels (and their variations) as I have yet to find a Georgian who can correctly say “bin” and “look” (“bean” and “luke”). These sound like small mistakes, but oftentimes cause confusion with similar words and wreak havoc on students’ spelling skills. Just these few corrections would make the difference between producing a student who can use grammatically correct English and one who can do so while being understood. Also to be mentioned are teaching methods, which at times are pure memorization and no critical thinking. Students often read and memorize things like parrots, so this doesn’t help them much at all. The exam should realistically have some methodology in it too, because teaching is more than just knowing the subject yourself. These changes will be hard at first, but as more teachers become more fluent in practical English, more students will as well and the cycle will get stronger.
So what’s the answer to my multiple choice question above? I still don’t know for sure. I wish it were possible for me to take these exams for myself and see what happens, but I doubt that will be possible. For now, this is what I have observed and what I have been gossipped to about, so it’s all I have to react to. If improvements need to be made, I hope they eventually will be, and if not then I guess I have assessed wrong and I am glad!