The Taste of Testing Students’ Test Papers

Bal Ram Adhikari

“How do you find marking students’ answer sheets?” To this question once asked abruptly by a friend of mine, I replied, “It tastes rather awful.” “What about teaching?” he asked another question. “Oh, don’t you compare teaching with testing!” That was my immediate reply.
As a teacher, my job is not over with the completion of the courses. The another important job that awaits me is testing or marking students’ answer sheets of the annual written examination. I enjoy teaching. My passion for teaching has now turned into a necessity rather than a desire. I often find teaching as a process of other-transformation and self-transformation. However, once I sit with my students’ answer sheets to rate their written performance in the subject, I find the same charm no more. Sometimes I question myself– What am I doing with these answer sheets?

I find testing itself intrinsically problematic

I find the notion of testing itself intrinsically problematic. The process itself tastes rather bitter. I read their written performance. I try to make sense of what they are trying to communicate through their words. I end up with a certain impression. I pause for a while. I mentally categorize the impression into such headings as language, content, and organization. Language is further divided into accuracy, brevity, clarity; content into relevance, details and depth. Then I quantify the overall impression. I try to find the appropriate numerical values for the impression. Say, it could be five, six, seven or even eight out of ten full marks. It might be two or three. Then I circle the marks in red ink at the end of the answer. However, the whole process from the first reading through interpretation to quantification of the impression takes me by surprise– What does it mean to present my impression of their answer in the numerical form? What does it mean when I assign six out of ten? How does the impression lend itself to quantification? Impression is intangible while quantification is tangible. It is the very process of converting the intangible into the tangible that puts students into two different bins: the pass and the fail. The passes are again ranked as first, second, third and last creating the notion of comparison and competition. The quantification also functions as a gatekeeper. How I quantify my impression of their answers might be detrimental (if low marks) or beneficial (if high marks) to their future academic as well as professional life. Similarly, the marks can also be detrimental or beneficial to the student’s self-esteem throughout their life. Isn’t it a funny as well as fatal game to play? Someone else’s impression of your performance determines your career and remains that with you throughout your life? Accepting this as part of academic and professional life, I enter into the process of evaluation. However, it tastes even bitter when I begin turning over the pages of the answer sheets.

Why does testing taste bitter?

Most of the answer sheets that I have marked leave the bitter taste behind. First, it is hard to make sense of what most of my students are trying to communicate. Here, I would like to present some sample sentences that I have picked up from the written performance of Masters’ second year students:

• Translator should also have bilingual as well as bicultural.
• On the above topic I am going to write argue for
• The main concern of today is only deconstruction. It is always starts with questions and goes beyond the logocentrism.
• I support this sentence by my heart due to culture is a inseparable element at translation process.
• In translating metaphoric expressions, there occurs different problems.
• The distinguish between them can be listed in the following ways. The time makes the clear distinguish between them. Anyway, translation and interpretation are same.

Such expressions abound the answer sheets of the advanced level students specializing in English. These are but few pieces of evidence out of 200 hundred sentences I have collected from students’ academic performance. When I run into such pidgin-like English, it strikes me– What did I teach? What did they learn? Or worse, did I teach them at all? Did they learn from my teaching at all? These questions are worth contemplating in terms of subject matter and the language they use to communicate to the prospective readers.

It is really hard to interpret their answer sheets when they are poor in terms of grammatical accuracy and clarity. Despite this, as a teacher, I try to make sense of what they are trying to communicate keeping the language matter aside and bringing the content to the fore. However, they are advanced English students. Subject matter knowledge and accurate writing ability must have the equal weight. Sometimes, the latter may get more priority. Now, it is hard for me to continue reading such answer papers which are hardly intelligible. How many marks should I assign them on what criteria? Should I penalize them for their language? I often grow ‘sympathetic’ to their poor level of language performance with the thought that development of writing proficiency is a life-long process. At least, they have demonstrated some knowledge in the content area. They will improve their language in course of their professional life. I console myself. However, the difficulty does not end here. My thought of being liberal to their level of language is immediately followed by another problem i.e. the complex interaction between language and content.

Language and content are inviolably interdependent. Is it possible or desirable to assign marks to their writing being ‘sympathetic’ to their language? Can we make such a separation in practice? Isn’t it something like running contrary to McLuhan’s famous dictum “the medium is the message”? I find myself in the helpless situation. I have to drop most of the criteria of marking that I happened to mentally outline before setting about the job. It makes my job rather difficult. I cannot fail the majority of the students for their poor performance in writing. Nor can I assign them the pass marks only considering their subject matter knowledge. In either case, I feel guilty. My students’ poor performance hints at the quality of my own teaching. Their failure means my failure too. I am testing myself as a teacher while testing them. The tester himself is tested. Nevertheless, I cannot, nor should I assign marks only to pass them. This means the information quantified in the form of marks is not valid. I am giving the invalid information to the concerned authority, and the professional organizations that rely on the marks for the purpose of selection. I have been in such a quandary for years while testing my students’ test papers.


Bal Ram Adhikari
Mahendra Ratna Campus,
Tahachal, Kathmandu

4 thoughts on “The Taste of Testing Students’ Test Papers

  1. I think we all have gone through this bitter taste of testing students’ work. We need to look at language and /or content. That’s not enough the answers should be legible as well.

  2. Determining the students future during the 3/4 hours of time and giving circles by some one of testing system,I felt, a suffering.

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