Tests and Grades
After a few weeks of testing and midterms towards the end of my semester teaching in Thailand, I decided that I love tests.
Not taking them, of course. I hate taking tests; at least I did back in my more academic days. I’d get extremely stressed out while taking tests, agonizing over every single detail of every answer. One right or wrong response could mean the difference between an A and a B! After Thailand, however, I am feeling much more positive towards tests. One, I don’t have to take them. Two, even the students who were taking the tests didn’t seem all that worried about them. They seemed to approach midterms and especially my tests with the same happy, whatever, attitude that they approached many things with. Yes, some of the teachers appeared strict and daunting – the kind that would cane you for a failing grade. In reality they are trying to get rid of the caning, so it’s really only reserved for unacceptable classroom behavior. Failing tests were no big deal. Or maybe I just couldn’t see the tension, the agonizing grief over choosing B or C. The students seemed to accept that they would perform how they would and didn’t worry too much. I monitored one of my favorite and best classes during midterms, so maybe my firsthand account is a little skewed. They all kept mostly quiet and did their work diligently and turned in their papers and stacked them nicely. In another class the other foreign English teacher said some of them talked and showed each other their answers. Some were even straight up sleeping. That just takes test taking to a whole new level of laid back.
As far as giving tests…I thoroughly enjoyed it. Somehow it felt like less work for me, even if I had to grade stacks of 200+ papers. I liked the concrete, solid grade number I could attach to it, as opposed to the arbitrary number I had to assign based on attendance and performance or participation. I think I felt a little more professional, and powerful, wielding that red pen; slashing through wrong answers with definite authority. Most of the time I didn’t even feel the least bit of guilt or pity marking things wrong, either. As the kids are notorious cheaters and the tests I gave were fairly easy anyway. I’d try to discourage the students from blatantly copying each others’ papers, but with 25-45 kids in each class, with little to no regard for ‘doing your own work,’ it proved to be quite difficult many days. A lot of them didn’t even care if they were copying the right or wrong answers from their friends, as long as they finished. The more advanced classes would be good and do their own tests for the most part, but those weren’t the ones I needed to worry about knowing the answers. In the lower level classes some students still couldn’t even write their own name in English on the test.
I tried to stick to basic, simple test layouts in order to minimize confusion for my students on instructions. On the larger tests I did ask a Thai Teacher to translate my English instructions into Thai for added clarity. This more or less helped. The majority of my assessments were listening based as well. I was supposed to teach conversation, and speaking as well as listening, but due to the large number of students in every class it was difficult for me to do frequent formal speaking assessments. Some of the topics I covered were numbers, greetings, conversations, emotions, prepositions, and food. I tried to make them in such a way, too, that I could tailor them in difficulty and answers for each class – since as stated they could be terrible cheaters and tell their friends the answers.
On the numbers review section, for some of the lower level classes I had a set of numbers written numerically next to the question. I would then say a certain number, and the kids had to circle which number I had said. For the more advanced kids I said a number and they had to write the number in the blank space. This allowed me to switch up the numbers I said from class to class as well. Example:
For emotions and food I drew pictures of the items and required students to match the picture with the correct word. For example, I had a list of food pictures, and I would say the name of each food item on the paper, and the kids had to put them in the correct order. So if I said ‘Apple, Pizza, Mangosteen,’ the kids were to write a 1 next to Apple, 2 next to Pizza, and 3 next to Mangosteen. On another quiz, I based it off of the ‘Where is Angry Bird?’ activity we had done earlier in class. I had a little toy Angry Bird – Thai kids loved Angry Bird – and I placed him in different spots in relation to a desk or chair. So, I would place Angry Bird on top of the desk and ask ‘where is Angry Bird?’ Students then had to circle the correct answer to my question, out of four choices (on, in, behind, etc. etc.). For one of the greetings/conversation tests, I had a question written in English. The students then had to choose from four responses. I read both the question and all of the answers to the students so they could hear the choices as well.
In my older classes I had more complex conversation based tests. I had conversations that they had to unscramble, questions that they had to decide where to put the ‘thank you’ and ‘you’re welcome.’ They were almost exactly the same as activities we had done in previous classes. The better students usually caught on all right, while the lower ability kids completely guessed or wrote nonsense or whatever English word they could think of. I had multiple cases of ‘Teacher, I’m hungry’ as an answer to a question, none of which were how are you feeling or are you hungry? My senior level students I had do work about giving directions. Mostly along the lines of left, right, straight, turn, stop, go. It was fill in the blank, after I gave them the words and demonstrated their meaning. I also gave them a map. This was…sometimes quite successful, sometimes not.
For speaking assessments, I had one co-teacher give me the test she wanted my students to take. They had a sheet of conversations that they were to perform for me. My co-teacher wanted them to memorize the conversations. If they could. My students were not happy about the memorization part. This requirement quite flustered them. So I slightly altered the process and told them exactly which two conversations I wanted them to do, instead of just picking them at random on test day. This helped. More rote memorization that I wasn’t really fond of, but it got them speaking. I also made the students do the conversations in pairs, with partners being person A and person B, instead of me being one of the parts. There was no way I would have gotten through everyone otherwise. I had to split it up between two days as it was. The pattern of performance was the same. The higher level classes performed better, and could even memorize some of the conversations. The lower we got in class number, the lower their ability to even read the words straight off the paper. I had a couple of boys in one class who clearly had no English despite being 4th years. I made them get through one conversation with me anyway. Their friends usually helped by whispering or telling them how to say each word. It was painful.
After that I decided speaking assessments were going to be more informal and more fun. For instance, on ‘likes’ and ‘dislikes’ day I had the class help me make a list on the white board of things they liked or didn’t like. Then I called on a student to come up to the front of the room. With a partner, so they got to pick on a fellow classmate. They loved picking others to have to be in front and do things. I had the pair take turns asking each other if they liked certain things on our list. They had to say both yes they did or not they did not. In full sentences. One of my favorite silly classes went rogue and one boy asked his friend if he liked a certain person, one of the lady boys who I think had already graduated. Hysterical laughter ensued after this. I wasn’t entirely certain what was going on at the time, but tried not to let on how confused I was. The laughter was contagious regardless and I counted it as a success. Whenever the students seemed to have fun I called it a win.
I did several similar activities in a lot of the classes and marked down notes about which students participated and how well they spoke. In addition to likes and dislikes we did please and thank you exchanges, basic ‘hello how are yous?’ and a few other topics. In my senior classes – the ones where any would show up – we made up conversations about a topic like shopping or holiday travels together as a class, then they had to come up in pairs and perform the dialogue for the whole class. Sometimes I’d do conversations that they just had to practice amongst themselves and I would go around and listen to, but making them come up to the front of the room was a lot more fun, I thought. And I kept better tabs on everyone that way. They couldn’t sneak out of the room with my back turned, anyway. And yes, I did specifically call on the kids who were blatantly trying to avoid me.
A few tests and worksheets I gave served basically as free points, even for the kids who didn’t know their English names. Since I could not fail any student, by law, these strategies were sometimes necessary. If the kids couldn’t fill out the most basic quizzes – with some answers even hanging up in the classroom – or straight up copy the answers we went over on the board, however, then they definitely didn’t deserve the points. Then they’d have to be given the opportunity to make up the points somehow. Some creativity was needed in the grading system sometimes. And sometimes I just couldn’t give students any points. In my Mattayom 6 classes – the ‘seniors’ – many students never even came to class. I thought a lot of them had just straight up left school altogether. Some I hadn’t seen in over a month. I had no way at all to assess them. Then on the last day of classes they all started showing up! In the case of the students I only saw once in a blue moon or not at all, I told my Thai co-teacher that I just couldn’t give them any points because I never saw them. She just smiled and said OK. I still have no idea if it was OK, or if she just had to make something up. Another Thai mystery whose answer I may never find.