On standardized tests in neoliberal English.

As I have mentioned in the form of Facebook bitching and Twitter complaint, D and I are required to submit IELTS scores as part of our applications for permanent residence in Canada. It is not enough that we claim to be native speakers and have been hired by Canadian institutions to teach sophisticated uses of the English language to college and university students; we must also have some standardized test company certify our basic proficiency in the national tongue (one of them). In addition to being, pragmatically, a gigantic pain in the ass, this requirement is offensive to the nation’s purported principle of “multiculturalism.” Having now taken the IELTS test, I can say with confidence that it is a very poor way of testing a person’s ability to participate in Canadian civic life, but it is a very good way of indicating to immigrants that they are being (potentially) admitted to national membership under the condition of demonstrating that they will be compliant, not criminal, subjects of the petty tyranny of low-level administrators. And since, as D reminded me, this test is designed to gauge skills not of citizenship but of “employability,” I suppose it is a well-designed beast.

On test day, you are required to report to the testing centre at 8:30am for registration and must be prepared to stay as late as 6:30pm to complete the test process. It costs $300 per person to apply to take the test, and we paid an additional $100 for a babysitter for the whole day. (I’m fortunate that my employer reimburses the cost of registering for the test as well as the PR application fees, which I imagine is not commonly the case; I discovered, though, that childcare services are not reimbursable.) If you arrive later than 9am, you are told beforehand, you will not be permitted to register and will forfeit your application fee; you will need to reapply and repay to take the test on another day. You are told both that you are responsible for your own sustenance, so you must bring food for the day, and that no food or personal belongings of any kind, including sweaters, phones, etc., are allowed in the test room, and the Centre cannot guarantee that there will be a secure area to leave such belongings on site, so you should “leave them in your car” or not bring them at all. (Again, we were extraordinarily lucky in that the test centre happened to be the college where D teaches English, so we could leave our coats and phones and reading material and lunch in his office.)

When we arrived well before 9am to report to this well-oiled regulatory machine, we found it running approximately an hour behind schedule, despite the fact that all the test-takers had arrived on time, some quite early. There were two long lines snaking down the hallway, and no one was available to tell you which line was for what, though someone did show up to scold people for being in the wrong line. The delays, it eventually became clear, were, predictably, entirely the result of various clerical errors: people who had registered for the General Training module were listed under Academic and vice versa; the people registering test-takers were writing wrong room numbers down on people’s papers, leading to general confusion and a lot of scolding of people for being in the wrong place. I was informed during registration that my signature was not “the same enough” to the one on my passport, though it was to the one on my application, which problem was somehow resolved by my signing a piece of paper several additional times.

As a result, the 3-hour written portion of the test (covering “listening,” “reading,” and “writing”) that was supposed to start at 9:15 did not begin until after 10. Once you enter the test room, registered, photographed, and stripped of all personal belongings, you are not permitted to leave the room to use the washroom. If you request to use the washroom, because it appears there will be plenty of time while the test administrators sort out the suitcase of papers they are puzzling over and fiddle with the sound system of the classroom that they have not mastered, you will first be told NO, then publicly scolded for not using the washroom before registering AS YOU WERE TOLD, and then allowed to go, “but you have to RUN,” and then an administrator will watch your progress down the hall to the washroom while yelling, “I SAID TO RUN! RUN!!” This did not happen to me, by the way, but to two other women in the room, one of whom pointed out that she had used the washroom before registering, when she arrived at 8:15, but as it was now 10, she needed to use it again. I sat there hoping hard, after she left the room, that she was not compelled to quicken her step one bit by the maniacal voice announcing to the whole floor that this renegade washroom-needing person was holding up the whole operation.

We saw test-takers yelled at for looking at the papers in front of them in the wrong way, at the wrong time. For not putting pencils down quickly enough. Yelled at. If you look at your paper the wrong way, at the wrong time, or do not put your pencil down quickly enough, you not only are subject to such public humiliation, but “you may not be permitted to receive your test results” and will forfeit your application fee and have to reapply, etc. IELTS has designed a million different ways for one inadvertently to have to pay again. Also, these test results expire. In two years. I met a guy in line who submitted to this Kafkaesque adventure two years ago, and now needs a score for another kind of application, and discovered that his certified competence in English had expired. This guy, wearing a business suit, who will be made (along with all of us) to take his wristwatch off and lay it on the desk and DON’T TOUCH IT I SAID HANDS OFF and ok now you can put it back on, presumably just to impress upon us test-takers that every part of us is now under the authority of the person in the front of the room, that this is not our time but her time, because seriously, how could someone smuggle any kind of notes under a wristwatch that could help one fake listening or reading comprehension in English, this immaculately dressed guy doing this for the second time in two years because he wants to work in Canada shrugs and tells me, “It’s what you have to do.”

We also saw administrators fumbling to pronounce test-takers’ names when calling people for interviews, then express disbelief that people were not coming when called, then joke amongst themselves about how impossible it is to pronounce these names. I spent the entire day at a simmer.

Of course I knew it would be like this. These aren’t acts of “rudeness,” but examples of the clumsy wielding of real power, which is organized with precision by the standardized test format. What I was really dreading, though, was the “Writing” portion of the exam. I dreaded it because I am acutely aware of how over-qualified I am to write a certifiably “proficient” short essay in English. I teach people how not to write this way for a living. I knew that in the moment, what would be tested was not whether or not I could write what was expected, but whether or not I would. And after witnessing the myriad clunky movements of the corporate-state indignity machine as it processed immigrants, it turned out that I would not spend an hour pretending I am someone who writes stupidly.

This section requires you to write, within an hour, two short pieces in response to prompts. The first was a letter of regret to a friend who wants to visit you next month, with explanations of why it’s not possible and suggested alternative arrangements. (I believe I wrote a perfectly functional, even graceful, letter of such regret.) The second was a short opinion-essay on whether you think books will disappear now that there are computers, or whether people will always read books. Faced with this absurd question, I felt that small panic rising. This was the moment I was expected to perform a pantomime of “competence,” using writing, and while I am very compliant in pantomiming competence, or at least trying to, in all kinds of other ways every day, it is not only my job but my calling to teach people how to read and write in ways that expose the limitations of “competent” thought—to show, for example, how certain kinds of questions and prompts rhetorically reproduce compliance to existing ideas rather than frame possibilities for new ones. Facing this silly exercise, on which my eligibility to apply for permanent residence in Canada in order to continue teaching Canadian students to see through exercises like this one depended, I felt something akin to being asked to violate a religious maxim. I decided to respond by showing the test more respect than it was showing me and take its question seriously. So I wrote a quite earnest short essay in which I answered the question (yes, I believe people will continue to read books) by way of very plainly explaining how the question is premised on a false dichotomy between “books” and “electronic information.” I then offered some alternative ways of defining “books” that illustrated how they are not necessarily in competition with computers for survival.

I received a score of 8 out of 9 for basic proficiency in “written English.”

10 thoughts on “On standardized tests in neoliberal English.

  1. I’m …. speechless. Perhaps someone in the … government? … will read this and fix it. That’s offensive on so many levels, I can’t even be funny. I will admit to wishing your “letter of regret” would have discussed that you couldn’t visit with them because of this test, and then … well, snarkiness would ensue, if I were writing it.

  2. Every time I proctor an exam I’m on the other end of this. No, you can’t use your cell phone as a time piece or calculator during the exam. No, you can’t use a programmable calculator. Take off your coat and put it at the front of the room. Put your pencil case under your seat. Hats are a huge issue. I have deep and extensive soul-searching over the proper treatment of hats (they make it easier to look at another person’s paper without the proctor seeing you, also information can be written into the brim of a hat. The latest thing is to use a miniaturized microphone or camera to transmit information wirelessly to a person nearby, who then gives the exam sitter the correct answer via a miniaturized ear-piece.)

    Cheating happens, especially when people are desperate and the stakes are high. After a while you start to get paranoid and see cheating everywhere.

    It sounds like you went through a horrible experience – and an experience that would be even worse for people who were less confident of their ability to pass the test, or who would have had fewer resources to fight the system. But sit in on a big undergraduate final exam some day – our students put up with these kinds of petty indignities all the time.

    • our students put up with these kinds of petty indignities all the time.

      This is exactly part of the problem I am trying to talk about. I don’t believe our students should have to put up with this at all. The classroom should be, in the final analysis, a space of empowerment, not criminalization. Pedagogically, this means both holding students to high standards and structuring respect into all their encounters with educators. I don’t know a thing about monitoring “cheating” in fields like economics, that’s true, but in my field I am able to design exams on which it is virtually impossible to “cheat.” This does require non-automated marking, among other things. It is essential to the learning we facilitate.

      • I think what you hit, nearly exactly, is that the very point of this system of discipline is precisely its blunt, stupid, and arbitrary use of power. Our education system [I’m speaking from an American perspective here, I’m not particularly informed about Canada’s] is designed from the minute details of classroom organization upward to turn students into reliable machines as much as possible. Fear, confusion, and humiliation are the standard techniques of public American pedagogy. It’s amazing that some people manage to “get an education” despite this.

  3. Not terribly surprising. In Michigan all 11th graders must take the standardized tests to graduate, but there is no minimum score they must earn. They are quite adept at making creative patterns on their answer sheets. I do think your issue above with the proctors behaving so poorly just speaks of The Stanford Prison Experiment, etc. where an individual in power invariably changes simply by having power. A great text is The Social Psychology of Power by Ana Guinote PhD and Theresa K Vescio PhD. I think a bit of countertransference occurs here as well-hostility as a result of our own feelings of powerlessness. It is often seen in social service agencies, psychiatric hospitals, etc. Thanks for a great post, highlighting this dehumanizing madness we are caught up in.

  4. What really surprises me is that with your assessment of the Canadian system, why would you want to be here? Any country that users draconian methods of treatment toward anyone should be avoided.

    • I’d say bad systems should be reformed rather than avoided, especially as the latter is impossible. As for why we want to be here? We live here, our jobs are here, and our child is a citizen here. Immigrants aren’t “outsiders.”

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