Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Kicking and Screaming

Today began badly and I should have just stayed in bed when I realized it. Somehow in my sleep last night or this morning I managed to reset the time on my alarm clock to an hour behind and the alarm to an hour ahead. This resulted in my awakening at what I thought was 7.30. I thought I had overslept a little, but it was okay because I had been tired, and I felt really rested. I went to brush my teeth. When I returned, I opened widget, my laptop, and found that it was 8.40. There was no way that I took an hour and ten minutes to brush my teeth. What was worse was that I was supposed to go get my test results at 9.00, so this was probably going to be another morning without breakfast.

My new conclusion about life is that any day that begins without breakfast is bound to be a bad one. Yeah, put that on an Ad Council advertisement with my face on it. I’m standing by it.

I went to get my test results, and I found that I did terribly. It was just awful. Now, this isn’t to say that it was unexpected, but I do believe that the results were not reflective of my actual abilities. I think I got a real dose today of the differences in education between the U.S. and China. For the first part of my morning, there didn’t seem to be a soul that I could convince that my test scores shouldn’t be all that they consider because I had a really off day for testing and bad conditions in which to test.

The first person I talked to was utterly unconvinced that I could do anything in Chinese because of the scores, even though our whole conversation was in Chinese and I passed all of his little tests like, “Read this passage aloud. Do you know what it means? Write this character.” After performing like a trained monkey for about 5 minutes, he told me to wait while he got someone from the office. A tall, slim woman approached with him a few minutes later. He explained, “She’s studied for two years in the United States, but look at these scores! They’re so low!”

[Allow me to note here that all dialogue you will read regarding the test was in Chinese, and not English. With that in mind, please, read on.]

She looked at them, and then at me. “These scores are not high enough for a student who has studied for two years. How can you explain this?”

I started talking about the poor recording quality of the tape, and being nervous after knowing I did badly on the listening section. Then I explained to her that subjects that I scored the worst on were usually my strongest points. I told her that I didn’t think the test was really reflective of my abilities, and that I think I should be retested. I also told her that I looked at the books for the course that my placement test suggested I enroll in, and that I thought they were too easy because I had already studied everything in them.

I was just going on and on about how wrong the test was about me – in Chinese. “I understand that this test is very important to placement and assessing my achievement. I agree. I think the test is very important. But I don’t think that I tested as I normally would have, and so I do not think that the test is accurate in this case.”

After that, she took me to a room where a short haired woman sat in a chair talking to another girl who I think was in my same situation. Their conversation was drawing to a close, and the girl shortly departed. The tall slim woman explained the situation to the short haired woman, adding, “Look at how low her scores are!” I was getting a little tired of that. Mentioning it more wasn’t going to make me feel worse after that. I think it’s good that I reached my saturation point of being affected early.

The short haired woman looked at my paper and asked me how long I had studied Chinese. I told her that I had studied two years at a school in the U.S., and that I knew that my scores were very low for my length of study. She asked me why I thought that was. I could tell that she was going to be more willing to listen than the others.

“I think there were several reasons. First, when the listening section began,” I covered my mouth with my hands, “it sounded like this. Can you understand this?” I took my hands down. Her eyes widened a little and she smiled sympathetically. “I called a proctor to my desk and told her that I couldn’t hear it, but –“

“- she had no solution?” she asked.

“Exactly. So I was so nervous because I knew that I was going to do badly. And when the next sections came, I became more nervous. When the reading comprehension section came, I felt awful because I could read the passages almost completely, but there were a few characters in the questions about it that I haven’t studied yet; so, I couldn’t answer anything about a whole text that I actually understood! What was I supposed to do to show that I understood? And then when the writing section came I was so nervous and sad that I started to forget how to write all of these characters that I already know. My grade on the test isn’t how I normally test.”

“I’m convinced that these scores are not normal for you. I think you had a bad day for testing. I’m going to have you look at some textbooks and see how difficult you think they are.”

We talked for a few more minutes, and then we to look at textbooks. The first two were way too easy and things I’ve already studied. She told that 45 must be too low, and that I should probably use book 68. She took me to the office to talk to someone. That someone was unfortunately the tall, slim woman.

The short haired woman explained to the tall woman that these scores can’t possibly be normal for me, and that she thought that I should be in the class that uses book 68. The tall woman took my scores in hand and looked at them again. “These scores are just so low, though!” she said.

Before the short haired woman had to talk again, I said, “I know these scores are low. But if you place me in the class that you want to, I might as well go back to the U.S. because I’m not going to advance here. I’m going to be wasting my time, and I’m not willing to do that when I know that my Chinese is better that this. I know that you don’t think so because the scores are all you have to go on, but I cannot be put in a class that is too easy for me. It will be a waste of time for everyone.”

The tall woman looked at me and paused. “Well, we’re going to put you in a course higher than what the scores indicate. The scores say you should be in the lowest level because they’re so low. But I think that you’re better than that, so we can put you with book 45.”

“And what if book 45 is too easy? What will I do then? Go back to the United States? Will I be able to change classes?”

After another pause, she told me that I should come back on the 2nd to take another test and talk to a teacher. After that, she said, we will decide my placement. “And if your class is too easy, you will talk to your teacher, and she will assess your skills. If she thinks you can move up, you two will come to the office, and we will advance you.”

That was something I could agree to. I thanked her and told her that I would see her on Friday. I’m happy that I was able to argue in Chinese. I didn’t dare try it in English because that wasn’t going to prove anything about what I know. It’s okay that I’m not fluent in Chinese, but it isn’t okay if I’m not even making an attempt. I think all of the arguing is probably what persuaded her to give me this second chance. I hope I don’t screw it up.

Today has taught me a great deal about why young students are terrified of their entrance exams in China and Japan. Having to constantly hear about how awful my scores are, and having to hear it made into such a personal reflection of myself is something I would never wish to have to go through. To me, tests are one measure of ability, but they certainly are not definitive. If hadn’t already learned to detach my grades from my sense of personal worth, I would have been even more of a wreck today than I already was. I now feel so much empathy for high school students in China and Japan. One off day can really give you an off year, or off life. What an awful thing to have to go through.


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