Testing, Failing, and Empathy

When I became aware of anything besides my laptop screen, the first thing I noticed was that my hands were shaking. I suppose my fingers had been steady enough for keystrokes, letters into words into sentences. But my trembling hands symbolized how unsure I felt that anything I had typed over the last two hours made one iota of sense.

The next thing I noticed was that my head was pounding. Like, freight train pushing out through my eyeballs pounding. Usually I have some warning about these headaches. They do not come on suddenly, and I have some time to prepare – meaning, hide. I had been so absorbed in the test that I missed my body’s warning signs, and I was now in the middle of a full-blown migraine.

And then I noticed the time. I was late to meet the students and my co-chaperone, Sarah, for dinner at the resort. Painfully late. The group would be waiting for me, but the test on my screen still indicated at least ten questions unanswered.

Thinking as fast as my headache would allow, I walked up to the test proctor – also head of the certification program that I now felt certain was out of my reach – and asked her if I could use my phone to send a text to our group while standing beside her. She had reviewed protocol with us before the test began: we were not allowed to leave the room, or use our cell phones, or access any other sites on the internet besides the online test.

She smiled and agreed, so I opened up my messages and froze. What was I supposed to text? “Go without me” seemed right, because all I could imagine doing afterwards was diving under my hotel room comforter until the test no longer seemed real.  But the last thing I wanted to do was leave Sarah in solo-charge of twelve hungry teenage boys.

Fuzzily, I thumbed, “Go without me if I’m not there at 6:15,” and started back to my desk.

“I have no idea where I’m going,” she responded.

I smiled weakly and waved my phone at the proctor, who smiled back. Standing in the middle of the room, I texted back, “Ben does,” and shut my phone off again.

Thank goodness for resourceful student leaders.

Ten questions to go.

Registering for the exam to become a Certified Journalism Educator (CJE) was one of the last business items I settled before departing for my summer job. Why did I click submit on the application and send the $60 fee? For a laundry list of reasons, journalism education now occupies a huge space in my time, energy, and passion. With suitcases packed for Michigan, I felt some wistful regret for the seven weeks I would spend teaching ceramics instead of at the wish list of summer journalism institutes I had researched. I really want to dive deep into this field, so getting certified seemed like a wise next step.

One bag in my car’s back seat contained about ten journalism books that I planned to read and study. It was May. The test was in November. Of course I would be ready.

When I could escape from art camp, I spent evenings at a Traverse City coffee shop, carrying a couple of those books at a time. I read and enjoyed the sections that helped me to prepare a careful outline for the journalism class I am teaching this fall. I burned packages of post-its and took a lot of notes. I learned some new things, and especially appreciated a lot of anecdotal examples that normalized some of the crazy things I’d experienced as an adviser so far. Prior review did not seem quite so tough in light of Hazelwood and how tightly the belt could be noosed at a private school. Spending twenty hours supporting layout? Normal, and there are some better ways we could manage this time.

What I did not think through on those long summer days was that I have forgotten how to study or take a test. I think I used to be good at it. College was a 3.86 (damn that C in Fr. Justin’s 7:45 AM Philosophy class), and grad school was 4.0. I don’t remember what my SATs were, but they were good enough to get me into every school where I applied except for Yale, and I doubt that decision had much to do with SATs.

But maybe testing is a skill – a craft. Like throwing a pot on a wheel, when you practice it, day in and day out, I assume you get better. When you do not practice – or even consider the concept – for fifteen years, you get very, very rusty.

Or – maybe – you practice, day in and day out, and you do not get better. What if, no matter how hard you study, unpredictable questions on a timer never get easier? Or what if you learn tons of applicable information while you’re studying (I did), and you are able to apply that information to impactful work (I think I do) – but the test questions still paralyze you?

Four questions to go.

The thing is, I never really studied for the CJE. Not in the way I noticed that the other participants were studying for the test, with PDF study guides I didn’t know existed until I joined the group on test day, and carefully crafted pages of notes.

If I had spent time on those guides, I would have known to cram everything I could learn about broadcast, video, and photography. I certainly need to understand these areas better, but I haven’t spent time there yet as an extracurricular adviser.

I would have memorized specifics of court cases that have shaped scholastic journalism, instead of gasping over the outcomes and raving (sometimes raging) to friends who are patient with my new obsession.

I might have even made flash cards, although I don’t remember if those ever worked for me. Like I said, it’s been a very long time.

One question to go.

What was I going to take away from the experience of this test? Certainly it would not be a passing score or my certification.

When I disconnected from the test window in Orlando, I wish I could say that I felt relief. Instead, after I steadied my hands, checked out with the proctor, and popped four ibuprofen in the hallway, what I felt most was empathy.

My students take tests multiple times each week, with higher-stakes marathons like the SATs and ACTs on the weekends. I know that some of them study incredibly hard. Maybe I should have asked them for a crash course in how to do this, but I also know that their lives are even busier than mine, full of very real things like families, relationships, and big decisions. Not to mention activities and leadership – where students like the ones who attended this conference put knowledge into real-world application every day.

Not to mention, there is a whole industry built on teaching students to take tests, even though we know that the big standardized tests are imperfect at best towards predicting student success. So students take tests, and if they aren’t good at taking tests, they should pay to take classes to learn how to take tests. I wondered if a test-prep class might have helped with the CJE.

I really needed the ibuprofen to kick in fast.

The group waited for me. Walking through the balmy Florida evening towards dinner and feeling a little better, one student asked me about the test – even though I had asked the editors-in-chief to help redirect these questions for awhile.

“It was awful,” I said, honestly. “I’m pretty sure I failed.”

A beat.

“Happens to everyone, KP,” he said. “And you probably didn’t really fail…”

“No, I’m pretty sure I did.”

We walked.

“Hey, does it always feel this bad? Like, when you bomb a test at school… is it like this?” I asked.

“Yup. Always.” he said. “It sucks.”

When I retake the CJE, I know exactly what I will need to study to pass. If the idealistic motive of a test is to provide scaffolding to what we still need to learn, I suppose my gut-wrenching afternoon did its job. But if you have to go through this several times a week – sometimes, for my students, several times a day – how long before you become numb?  How often do I misread perceived disinterest or lack of focus – when my students’ reactions parallel the exhaustion and frustration I felt after this test?  What are the perceived stakes of tests, and why does it feel so damn awful when you fail?  And as an adviser, how can I better support students under pressure, for whom I felt so much post-test empathy?

I had, and have, no clearer answers to these questions than I did to the ones on the CJE exam. I will have test results in a few weeks, and I’ll have to deal with the outcome. Despite my sense of sickening failure, I am grateful for the experience, because empathy was the test’s unexpected gift.

It was a gift almost as wonderful as the experience of traveling to a journalism conference with such a focused, considerate, and fun group of students.  Maybe failure is best experienced alongside people who can relate and help you to pull meaning from the experience.  If the outcome of my test was not certification, but instead better empathy and ability to support my students, this may be even better than a passing score.

6000 journalism enthusiasts learning together / J. Bennett

6000 journalism enthusiasts learning together / J. Bennett


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