Goshen News, Goshen, IN

September 1, 2013

WHOLE FAMILY: Keep your minds and those No. 2 pencils sharp


— Nothing quite like a newly-sharpened No. 2 pencil, is there? Some 30 years ago, on test day, we students would each get two brand-new pencils, school-bus-yellow pencils with fat, pink, unmarred erasers. I liked the pencils’ smell — woody, clean, schoolish. I liked their feel — light, solid, sharp. More so, I liked how they made me feel – hopeful, confident, smart.

It was test day, remember? So the pencils weren’t just new pencils. They were new No. 2 pencils for meticulously filling in bubbles on Scantron© answer sheets. You’d want your lead sharp — but not so sharp it snapped — so you could fill in those test answer bubbles neatly.

And if you did not fill them in neatly … Well, it was the first time in my life I learned about “the machine” judging my work. If you did not fill in the bubbles correctly, “the machine” would count your answers wrong. Three decades later, I heard the same spiel in a college course: Fill out the boxes — rectangles, this time — correctly or else. And I should note NO yellow No. 2 pencil made me feel hopeful, confident or smart enough to ace my college anatomy tests. Those days I wished I was back in sixth grade identifying parts of a sentence.

So ... TESTS! Do you like them? Hate them? Ace them? Always bomb them? How do you feel about your children taking them? Have you read some of the controversies about standardized achievement tests? Do you find tests useful?

And do you realize — we all take tests every single day? We do. Might as well consider them.

As a nursing student, my life revolves, in many ways, around achievement tests. Each lecture class has several tests, and for many classes, those tests are the only measures for my entire class grade. (When I’m a nursing instructor, we’re having more papers, I swear.) For clinical skills, we had to be tests — or “validated,” it’s called. Then, after graduating, all would-be nurses must take and pass the BIG TEST, called the NCLEX, for a license to practice nursing. So, much of what we do in school is prepping us for that one, big, eventual test.

An “achievement” test like the NCLEX assesses what you know, what you’ve learned. Achievement tests are the ones most common in academics. You learn something — likely by lecture or reading — then you take a test to see if you learned the content.

Or, at least, if you can regurgitate the content.

That’s one complaint some people have about using achievement tests to measure academic success. Ever taken a test, or know someone who has, then promptly forgotten nearly everything once you got your good grade? I’d like to tell you I’ve never done that. Alas, I have.

Other tests assess not so much achievement but just your “status” for any given issue. Think of an eye exam, the test where you read the letters on the wall. There’s no “achievement” to it; instead, it’s simply an assessment of how great or poor your eyes are. I like tests like that — ones for which there’s no right or wrong answers. For my eye tests and urinalysis drug tests, I often joke, “Now, those are tests I’m sure to ace.”

SO, WHAT’S THIS TESTING all about? I’ve already mentioned it’s about measuring success or defining a condition. But why? Easy. Test results are one way to determine what needs to happen next. Think about those achievement tests. Fail one in school and see how quickly the word “remediation” pops up. At the eye doctor, your test might determine whether or not the doc recommends glasses or sends you home bare-faced for another year.

Our lives are made up of little tests every day designed to give us information for the purpose of making decisions. To wit: Gingerly sip the hot coffee to assess if you’re able to gulp it. Put your wrist under the faucet before turning on the shower. We also take more than a few achievement tests every day, though we often don’t even think of them as such. Driving across town, my ability to remember and adhere to traffic laws is measured, for example.

WHAT IS MY POINT? Not entirely sure myself. But being immersed in tests all the time, I’ve come up with a few tips for taking them.

One: Don’t let them scare you. Tests are just part of life and will be forever, whether you’re in academics or not. Just consider them the next thing when they’re the next thing, then take them.

Two: Take care of yourself physically and otherwise. Sleep well, eat well, exercise and minimize stress. Really. I’ve gotten to the point that if I say “I cannot” do those things, then I have to drop something because those things simply must be done.

Three: Get good at taking tests by learning what kind of test it is, even who wrote it and whom the audience is. For a nursing test, for example, I’m going to think a little differently than I will for a driving test.

Four: It’s OK to memorize, test and forget – but only when it’s OK. While I value every ounce of information I come across in nursing school, I hone in on the information I’m pretty sure will be especially necessary in my clinical assignments and as I go on in my career. The other stuff? I learn it, sure, but I don’t stress it if I learn it and all but forget it after a test. Whatever specialty or role I’m in, I promise t make sure to pay special attention to that information when I get there.

Five: Having a couple newly sharpened No. 2 pencils, even when your tests are on the computer, still makes me feel hopeful, confident and smart. Most times.

Goshen News columnist Stephanie Price is a wife, mother, teacher, childbirth educator, midwife’s assistant and nursing student from Elkhart. Contact her at wholefamily@goshennews.com, 269-641-7249 or on Facebook at the page “Whole Family Column by Steph Price.”