Speaking Tests

The chair was really cold and uncomfortable. Actually, the entire hallway was freezing, and I was shivering in my winter coat and scarf while my students, who I could see through the classroom windows, laughed and chatted in a comfortably heated room. I tried not to think This sucks, because how many more times would I have to do this? Another fact I didn’t need to concern myself with.

Finally the first student noisily pulled open the sliding classroom door, gave me an anxious glance, and closed the door behind her in an equally noisy fashion. She walked over to the chair in front of me quickly, fueled by a nervous sort of energy, and I smiled to reassure her. But in the short time that she confessed her nervousness to me, I had already prepared the timer on my phone, picked up my rubric and pulled out a pencil.

“Are you ready?” I asked, even though we would start regardless of her answer.

Around mid-November, I had my first experience with speaking tests. My previous school didn’t require them, and upon telling some former coworkers that I had to do speaking tests, their responses were, “What? Why?” “Are your students really high level or something?”

I laughed but wondered the same thing. When it’s nerve-wracking for my students to even answer the question “How are you?” (with something other than “I’m fine thank you and you?”) how was it fair to make them take a speaking test?

On the one hand, it ended up being nice to have individual time with each of my students. On the other hand, that time was extremely rushed and I came away with a passionate hatred for speaking tests, wishing I never had to do them again. That feeling has somewhat subdued, but I know there are revisions I can make for next semester to slightly improve the experience.

The demands of the test were the most frustrating. My coteachers expected the test to be done in one class period. I had originally planned for students to speak for three minutes each, but now this wasn’t feasible. Instead I cut the requirement down to two minutes and we still ran over time in most classes.  While my classes are pretty small, it was impossible for classes of 24 or 26 to be finished within 50 minutes. Even for classes of 22, we often didn’t move fast enough to get through everyone before the bell rang.

So students came to me nervous, sometimes unprepared, and while I wanted to take my time, reassure them and let their catch their breath before starting, I had to hurry them along. They were not sufficiently prepared for speaking tests, really, which is partially my fault. I hadn’t realized that I was supposed to be teaching in a way that would prepare students to speak on any topic we’d covered. In October, one of my coteachers suddenly began pushing me to cover more topics in class so that there would be more possible fodder for the speaking tests. Unfortunately it hindered the way I went about lesson planning and unnecessarily stressed me out.

In the end I managed to give students a set of 10 topics. They would have to study all 10, but on the day of the test, they would randomly choose three topics, one of which was “free choice” – choose any of the above. They could talk about one topic, two, or all three, as long as they kept talking for two minutes.

During the test, some had the bravery to admit to me that they hadn’t studied the topics they’d drawn well enough and asked if they speak on a different one. Some students had the audacity to tell me they didn’t study and just wanted to do number 1 or 2 (the easiest ones). These students essentially did the same thing, but some I viewed as impressive, having the courage to assert themselves in English, something I rarely saw displayed in class. But others I saw as clearly not having put in any effort and trying to take the easy way out – and assuming I would let them take it! I guess I made this judgment based on my biases, formed from their personalities and participation in class. A lot more students asked to do different topic than I expected. So in the end, I just became annoyed with all of them.

While I can’t change the time constraints or student effort, a couple of my frustrations, can be easily changed or made better through improvement:

Frustration 1. Listening to students say the same things over and over again.

Since introducing themselves, me, or their family members were the easiest topics, these were disproportionately chosen. I started to grade more favorably if students had something unique to tell me, which gave the first class an unfair advantage. And this leads nicely to the next point…

Frustration 2. Grading objectively!

This was so much harder than I thought. Although I’ve gotten the hang of judging speech contests, grading so many students so quickly was an entirely different beast. After my third class, which was my first time testing beginner level students, my coteacher spoke to me privately at the end of class. He asked me to go easy on these students because they tried really hard and studied a lot, but their abilities didn’t always match their efforts. So I agreed to grade easier, but…he might have completely thrown me off. The rest of the week, each class’s scores were consistently higher than Monday’s classes, although that wasn’t an honest reflection of their actual abilities. In short, next time a more clearly laid out rubric is necessary. And maybe ignoring coteacher requests, at least until the end. So this is how curving is supposed to work…

Next semester I’ll change the way topics are chosen – planning an entire semester’s curriculum around a two minute test is ridiculous – and give more variation – for my sanity. What students’ choices told me about this past test was that either some questions were too difficult so only a few were willing to attempt them or some were too easy, low-hanging fruit, if you will. I still hate grading, but I’m learning how to conduct this necessary evil.

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