Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Test Taking, Clock Watching & the Warping of Time by Andy Jobson

Tick, tick, tick...

Last Saturday I spent my morning serving as a room supervisor for the SAT. While I had a busy weekend planned, our testing coordinator asked me to help her out, and with four kids at home and one in college, I can always use a little extra money.  So I agreed to sacrifice some Saturday morning sleep and relaxation to help her out.  Some might think that watching kids take a test is a pretty easy way to spend several hours and earn $100.  I'd have to disagree.

I always think of Camus’s The Plague when I proctor.  While I don’t remember much about the book, I do remember a discussion of time.  A character in the novel speaks of wasting time; he argues that the least wasteful use of time is to be excruciatingly aware of each passing second.  Waiting in the doctor’s office, for example, where time passes agonizingly slowly, makes you fully aware of the passage of time. Of course, it’s also a form of torture.  With the proliferation of handheld idiot boxes, we don’t suffer from this as much.  (Instead we suffer from carpal tunnel and decreased attention spans, but that’s another story.)

Proctoring the SAT fits Camus’s analogy quite well.  As the timekeeper, I have to keep a close eye on the clock so that I can announce sonorously, “You have five minutes remaining for this section.”  That’s about as exciting as it gets, sadly.  You watch the timer closely.  Okay, there are twelve minutes remaining.  Better make a pass up and down the aisles… You move up and down the aisles, checking to make sure everyone is on the right section and is using the correct pencil.  Perhaps you quietly remind a student to keep his calculator flat so that others aren’t tempted to look. Hmm, still nine and a half minutes.  Should I stay or go?  You look away, gaze around the room, and pray for time to pass before glancing again.  Really?  Still seven minutes and forty-five seconds?  Please….  Time warps when you're watching the seconds. Occasionally I wish I were taking the test again just to have something to do.

Perhaps the problem is that the tests aren’t stressful enough.  When I spent my junior year of college in the United Kingdom, end-of-year exams were essentially an “all-or-nothing” proposition; you only earned credit if you passed the exams.  Hence, students were quite stressed out, and sometimes amusing incidents resulted.  I did not observe it, but I heard the perhaps apocryphal story of a student who brought a teddy bear to the exam, ostensibly as a good-luck charm.  After returning from a brief visit to the bathroom, the student grew visibly agitated and started tearing apart his teddy bear.  “Haven’t you gotten more done than that?” he reportedly shouted.  “What have you been doing while I’ve been gone?”  If only we had such things to anticipate for the SAT.

I’m glad to help out my friend, and I’ll be glad to receive the check when it comes.  I’m also glad when I hear students express feelings of confidence that they did well, as it means my fellow teachers and I are doing our jobs.  Nevertheless, I ask that you think of the proctors’ mind-numbing, soul-sucking boredom as they watch the clock, making this essential rite of passage possible.

I guess it’s just one more reason to thank a teacher.

An educator of 22 years, Andy Jobson has taught government, economics, and U.S. History. Currently teaching English literature at Riverside Military Academy in Gainesville, GA, he’s also been an administrator, a STAR teacher twice, and taught elementary school with Teach for America.