How Do You Measure Up?
The atmosphere in the Zafer Masri building on first day of the summer session STEP II EFL classes could rightly be described as rife with anxious and excited energy: swarms of students huddled around the check-in table to discover their class assignments, before hurriedly making their way to classrooms throughout the building, all the while greeting new and familiar classmates and teachers. Adding to the fervor of these first-day jitters was the recent news of the Tawjihi exam results, the standardized testing measure administered throughout Palestine and Jordan which largely dictates college admissions prospects for hopeful secondary school students. Indeed, the sounds of celebratory fireworks emanating from Nabulsi households resonated throughout the building, punctuating the EFL classroom activities with explosive intensity.
As newcomers to the Middle East, the EFL Fellows responsible for leading classes were unaccustomed to contending with such celebratory explosions while teaching. However, the American Fellows in particular were no strangers to the strains of standardized testing. Mostly recent college graduates themselves, the Fellows vividly recall the stress of preparing for the SAT examinations. American Fellow Darren Spirk prepared for the SATs through focused self-study and was disappointed to receive a lower score than he had anticipated. He recalls, “I was really stressed because I got a lower score than I expected to and I felt like it didn’t adequately represent the type of student that I was.” As a test designed to indicate students’ college readiness, Darren’s experience with the SAT highlights the manner in which standardized tests often fail to provide schools with holistic portrayals of applicants as students.
It is for similar reasons that secondary students in Palestine face such stress in anticipation of the Tawjihi exam, which, at contrast with the United States, not only determines one’s college readiness, but also the specific schools and courses of study for which applicants are eligible. Cases of depression have been reported throughout the country following the release of Tawjihi scores, as students find themselves unable to pursue careers in the field where their interests lie.
Unfortunately, in both the United States and Palestine, this pressure to prepare students to meet state-dictated standards effectively limits teachers, who design lessons not around the needs and interests of their students, but rather in response to the demands of the exams. TYO Core Child Program teacher Ahmad Al-Khatib explains how this emphasis on test preparation diminishes the quality of instruction in Palestinian schools, lamenting that, “students go to school just to listen to the teacher,” without any outlets for self-expression, collaboration with peers, or critical thinking. At contrast with this impersonal and teacher-centered model, Al-Khatib describes how the psychosocial approach adopted in TYO’s Core Child Program regularly requires students to work as a team and solve communal problems.
This team-oriented approach is equally important in the foreign language classroom, where students must develop their ability not only to comprehend the teacher’s use of the target language, but also to use it independently in interactions with a variety of speakers. The EFL fellows were eager to encourage collaboration among students throughout the first week of classes, designing activities that engage pairs and small groups of students in conversation. Fellow Kyra Zimmerman adds that peer interactions afford students a low-pressure forum in which to express themselves English, at contrast with more stressful teacher-student interactions, allowing them to develop the confidence and fluency necessary to articulate their ideas in a foreign language.
While it is certainly disconcerting that, across the globe, student performance continues to be measured largely by rigid standardized exams, organizations such as TYO exemplify the manner in which peer collaboration in the classroom can be harnessed to provide teachers with a more thorough picture of each student’s communicative competence.
The English as a Foreign Language (EFL) program is part of STEP! II, a youth employability, empowerment, and community leadership initiative supported by Abdul Hameed Shoman Foundation.
-Amy, Summer 2016 EFL Fellow