Walking the Walk: testing should be an affordance, but…

I’ve had something that’s been bothering me for a while now.  It’s the pebble I can’t shake out of my shoe.  It’s the English STEP test.  3 times a year I’ve got to prep my kids for the listening and then the interview test.  And my school is just crazy about these tests.  I’m not going to spend much time pointing fingers at the administration.  STEP test results are good for business.  When students pass the 2nd level, its something real they can put on their resumes.  It helps them get into university.  The shiny certificates make for great photo shoots.  And the test isn’t the problem.  How I teach for the test is the problem.
You see, after 13 years of preparing students for the test I know what a student needs to do to squeak by.  Especially in the interview test.  If the tester asks, “Do you think cars will still use gasoline in the future?”  All the student has to do is catch “car” and “future” and string together two grammatically correct and understandable sentences about cars in the future.  Or if they catch “future” and “gasoline” they can do the same with those two key words.  For example, “In the future I don’t think there will be gasoline.  Gasoline is very bad for the environment,” or “I don’t think there will be cars in the future.  Most people will use buses or maybe bicycles.”  Basically, you can teach students to listen for key words and then use whatever bare-minimum language they can put together to answer the question.  But this is not communication.  This is not teaching English.  And worst of all, this is not respecting the students and believing in their abilities.  
Now I would like to say that I use the STEP Test as a chance to help students develop critical thinking skills, express their opinions and generally work on their communicative abilities.  But, truth of the matter is, I spend much more time just making sure they pass.  How do I know?  Because I record the students when we do mock interviews.  And this week I also recorded myself giving them feedback.  And then I listened to what I focused in on with the students.  
I did the mock interviews in one of the larger empty classroom on the 4th floor.  The recorder had a good mic., so it caught the echo as my voice rang off the walls.  While I was listening, I started to feel uncomfortable.  I sounded so sure about everything I was saying.  That was the first sign that something was off.  I’m rarely that sure in the classroom.  As I listened I kept hoping to hear something that put the student at the center of the experience.  One of the mock questions was, “Do you like to stay at luxury hotels?”  This could have led to real exchanges about family vacations or Japanese hot spring resorts.  But no.  My feedback was on how to pass the test, how to keep it simple and be understood, not on how to answer the questions in any kind of way that fostered self-expression.  
So what am I going to do about it?  Just keep walking around with the pebble in my shoe?  The truth is, I don’t know if I have enough courage to do what I think is right.  Why?  Part of it is self-preservation.  Another part is fear that if the students fail, they might end up damaged (and I know that is so patronizing).  I could just ask the students, “Do you want to focus on getting better at English or on passing the test,” but that seems like an abdication of responsibility.  And I don’t need to ask.   When I listened to the recording of one student’s wonderfully convoluted and nearly two minute long answer about why she likes to watch movies at home, I knew that what that student wants, what almost all my students want, is for someone to understand them, not to just be merely understandable. 
When I think of the English teachers and teacher trainers I really respect, I feel like I know what they would be doing in a similar situation.  From Monday to Friday I have five days in a row of Step tutoring.  I’m going to try to do what I can to change directions.  Hopefully, by the end of the week I’ll have something positive to post.  I’ve had enough of this hobbling along.  
(Thanks to #ELTchat for bringing up the issue of testing in general.  It was the outside force I needed to help me take a harder look at what I am doing in my classroom)

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