Student perspective: is it okay to lie on language tests?

Raise your hand if you’ve ever said something like this to your world language students: “Remember – I’m not grading you on what you say. I’m grading you on how you say it. It’s okay to lie on your test if you can’t remember the Spanish word you want to use!”

This, of course, is an excellent testing strategy for students. The most recent conversation I had like this in my classroom was during our “giving directions” unit. One of our test questions asked students to write out driving directions from their house to school. “Your directions don’t have to be accurate,” I advised them, “just make sure you include a few different turns so I know you can use the structures we’ve learned.” This gives students the freedom to show off the language they know, avoid the language that gives them trouble, and stress more about finishing their test than writing long paragraphs of accurate directions from their house thirty minutes away from school (not to mention it makes grading easier for me).

Let’s think about this from a student’s perspective…

Fast forward a few months and the roles are reversed. I am sitting in the student’s chair at a language school in Costa Rica, discussing current events in Spanish with my (phenomenal) Spanish teacher for the month, Sandra. I am taking the ACTFL Proficiency exam in a few weeks, and I have to prove that I can speak and write Spanish at an advanced level in order to qualify as a World Language National Board Candidate. Often ACTFL asks opinion questions on controversial topics in order to see how a learner manages the target language when discussing complex issues. As I try to explain how insane the 2016 presidential elections have been in the United States, I get flustered because I’m passionate about what’s going on in my country, and I want to tell my Costa Rican friend about the nuances, but I’m tripping over my Spanish words. Sandra looks at me and says, “Emily. ACTFL is not grading you on your opinion. ACTFL is grading you on how you use the language. It doesn’t matter if you lie on the test as long as you use language at an advanced level. Don’t stress so much about expressing your opinion accurately.”

“But Sandra,” I say back to her, “this is really important to me! There are crazy things going on in the US right now, and I want to talk about them with you!”

You see where this is going, right? This is when I thought of my students, and a lightbulb went off over my head. I almost covered my mouth in horror. “Oh my gosh, Sandra, I have this exact conversation with my students all the time.”

It’s okay to let them lie on assessments because I’m teaching them good testing strategies, isn’t it? 

Yes…but…having to lie about something important to you just to get a good grade is kind of annoying, right?? Have you ever watched a red-headed kid in Spanish 1 and write down “yo soy rubia” on an assessment because spelling “pelirroja” is hard? I have! And yeah, the student could get a perfect score on the test with “rubia,” but when I think of my identity as a teacher, my number one goal is not “all of my students have a perfect grade,” my number one goal is “my students can communicate in a foreign language about things that matter to them.” I love teaching a foreign language because you can give students a chance to get so creative and crazy with it! It gives them another outlet to express themselves, something all adolescents tend to crave. Every time I tell students it’s okay to lie on a test, it carries an undertone of “Expressing yourself accurately isn’t the most important thing. Getting a perfect grade is the most important thing.” And I’m sure as educators, that’s not the type of thing most of us enjoy promoting.

But let’s get real; grades matter to everyone. How do we teach good testing strategies AND emphasize that we care about the things our students really want to say? 

The emphasis on what we want kids to know, understand and do should line up exactly with our assessments. In every unit and every day, I want my students to understand that I care about them and their ability to express themselves in the target language according to their personal interests and passions. However, this doesn’t always line up correctly with what our school district wants them to know and do.

Take, for example, a really common thematic unit for Level 1 – sports. To pass my county’s final exam, my students need to be able to say something like, “I need a helmet, a glove, and a bat to play baseball.” BUT out of my 60 Spanish 1 students, maybe 3 of them actually play baseball. If I have a kid who is on an insanely good bowling team, how am I going to keep him engaged through the baseball vocabulary, which he need for his exam, and also give him time to talk about bowling, his passion? What about the dozen kids who hate sports and don’t play? What about the girls every year who end up in an argument with the football players in class about whether or not dance team is a sport?

Like all meaningful and engaging units, this requires a little more work on my end and a little more work on the students’ end. By the time our sports unit hits, I already know which students are varsity athletes, which ones are involved in non-conventional sports, and which ones would rather sing on a stage in front of 500 people than run a mile in gym class. So, I always include the curriculum-mandated vocabulary and offer up student-driven vocabulary based on their interests and passions (even better if they find this vocab themselves!). The students have access to both mandatory and student-specific vocab, AND they have an opportunity to use both on their summative assessment for that unit. On my test this opportunity looks like an open-ended presentational writing prompt: “Write to a Spanish-speaking friend about your favorite sport or after-school activity. How often do you do it, where do you do it, and what do you need to do it?”

Does this mean that every student is going to jump at the opportunity to learn extra vocab so they can talk about their passions? Absolutely not. Will I still give students credit for lying about their passion for baseball on their test when they really only care about playing piano? Yup. But in giving them the tools they need to express themselves accurately from the start, I indicate to my students that I care about their true thoughts and interests. I show love to the kids whose passions lie outside our official curriculum. I still give them testing strategies and hold them accountable for the knowledge required by the county, but I also give them the tools they need for accurate expression if they want it, which is really what being a language teacher is all about.

My takeaway from listening to my friend/tutor/colleague Sandra tell me to lie on the ACTFL exam is that a) lying actually IS a good testing strategy, but b) I need to make sure I’m emphasizing to my students that I care about their passions from the beginning of each and every unit. Have you ever sat in a student’s chair and had a striking realization about the way you teach? How do you give students opportunities for expression on assessments that go outside the curriculum? Send me a comment and let me know!

photo credit: Common Ground International