So, I wrote last week about the important tests for 8th graders which go a long way to deciding their next 4 years. I mentioned then that I don’t believe in testing in general, because I think it tends to favour those who are good at tests . But I do see that they at least provide something of a level playing field.
Except when they don’t
There are times when my patience for the way things work in Romania is tested to its limits. This last week has been one of those times. It is not an exaggerated rant to say that the testing system in this country is an absolute fucking disgrace.
Let me explain: The marking of these tests is done pretty much the same day (or the following day) by local teachers who are paid almost nothing for the job (they get a gross payment of something like 3.70 Lei per test marked, which, after taxes and everything probably works out at about 40p net). These teachers have a mark sheet to refer to, which they use to score the tests. But – and it’s a very big but – there is no standardisation. Essentially the teachers mark as strictly or leniently as they like. Indeed on the markers' information sheet it actually gives the marker the leeway to decide whether they think something deserves a mark or not. If your paper ends up with a strict marker you get a low mark. If it ends with someone willing to give the benefit of the doubt, then you get a much better one. The test grade is, to all intents and purposes, a lottery. Your grade depends, very heavily, on the marker your paper is randomly assigned.
Now, I know a fair amount about testing and assessment in my professional work. I'm by no means an expert in that field, but I have read a fair amount on it, taken training courses, and have attended testing and assessment conferences. In short, I know something (less than many, more than most) about how tests work and what their function is. In addition, I am an oral examiner on a well-known international English test, and in that capacity I have to attend thorough and extensive annual standardisation meetings.
In these tests, though, far from levelling the playing field, the testing system does exactly the opposite (the papers are marked anonymously, so at least we can say the process is not corrupt, but it’s still based on pure luck). And levelling the playing field is, and I want to stress that I'm stating this in the most calm, objective, thoughtful way possible, levelling the playing field IS THE WHOLE FUCKING POINT OF HAVING A FUCKING TEST IN THE FIRST FUCKING PLACE.
The maths test is reasonably balanced, because obviously in maths (especially at the 8th grade level) there isn’t a great deal of potential variation in correct answers. It’s either right or not. But the literature tests (and here in this town most kids take two of those – in Romanian and Hungarian) are pretty much marked by whim.
So, one can draw the short straw in the Romanian and/or Hungarian marking lottery and get a terribly hard marker. The best in the class can get the worst marks. To give an example, there are two identical twins in another class at her school, who are both brilliant, and who both score more or less exactly the same on any work. Their marks for the Romanian test were 9.10 and 5.25 out of ten. This is simply not a possible split. Some of the best in Romanian in Bogi's class got some of the lowest marks (including the two kids who have a Romanian parent, and who are therefore functionally bilingual. Though, of course, as I've mentioned before, the test does not test language competence, but literary analysis)
There is an appeal process. But everybody in the know says that the second marker tends not to alter the mark much because it’s perceived as undermining a fellow teacher.
The Romanian test in particular has been the subject of much debate in the country over the last week, since a teacher from Bucharest last week complained that it was (a) testing things that were not on the curriculum; and (b) subjective in the marking. She gave an example of a question of synonyms in which two answers were given but others were possible. (Her letter here, in Romanian). The Ministry of Education has responded on their website by pointing out that (in the case of (b)) it states quite clearly that the teacher/marker has the flexibility to decide whether an answer not given in the key is acceptable or not. (Link here). In other words, they have proudly stated, defending themselves against the charge of having a subjective grading system, that they do in fact have a subjective grading system.
The function of the test is essentially a competition. Having your test marked hard is not a problem – if everyone is marking the same. But they are not. So, the upshot is that some kids get punished through no fault of their own. And these tests (or rather the grade given for these tests) decide which school you can go to and which subjects you can study. They are, in short, extremely important. Much too important, it would seem, to be left in the hands of whichever people at the Ministry of Education are currently responsible for them.
I love living in this country for many reasons, but sometimes the way it is run makes me want to scream. Perhaps I should not expect more when the Prime Minister is an unrepentant plagiarist.
Maybe it's an important lesson for 8th graders to learn that their lives are subject to the whims of fate and that ability and hard work count for nothing. But I figure they'll learn that eventually anyway. It seems shameful to institutionalise it.