So I took the CBEST yesterday. For those of you who have no idea what I'm talking about here, the CBEST is the California Basic Education Skills Test. You have to take it in order to get a teaching credential in California (and usually before you even enter a teaching program, which is why I took it).
The thing isn't exactly hard, provided you've done some prep work and reviewed a decent book on the subject (I highly recommend The Princeton Review's "Cracking the CBEST" which I will be selling used on Amazon as soon as I get my test scores back). But what the test lacks in rigorous difficulty, it makes up for in tediousness. There's a math section (50 questions) made up of everything from "In which of these figures does x=y but y not equal z except on Tuesdays" (well... something like that, anyway) to "Greg and Marsha want to sell beaded jumpsuits. They sell 47 beaded jumpsuits to their butcher Sam on the first day. If Sam keeps smoking Thai green at this rate, how many jumpsuits will he have by the end of the week?" (again, I'm paraphrasing). After those fun and games, there's a reading comprehension section full of some of the dullest reading you'll find anywhere. Finally there's a writing section in which test takers have to write two essays. One is an argumentative essay and you have to take a position and support it, whereas the other is a life experience type of thing in which you have to tell a comprehensible story. You get four hours to take all three sections in any order you want.
Each question on its own is a challenge. Some are ridiculously easy. For example, "Royal has clean 10 shirts. If he wears one shirt every day and always gets it dirty, how many clean shirts does he have at the end of 5 days?" The only tricky thing there is getting over the name "Royal" and his inability to stay clean. But some are much more difficult either because they involve 6 or 7 different steps, or you have to remember that they're asking for twice the product of the thirteen multipliers they've just thrown at you, or sometimes there's just a lot of information to keep track of - some of which is superfluous to the actual question. I spent a lot of time scratching my head and going, "Ok, so wait. Mary had the twelve bottles of shampoo but then Peter borrowed three of them and only brought back two… how much damn hair does he have that he has to borrow three bottles of shampoo!? Ack - ok stop. Focus. So he borrowed three and brought back two, so we have negative one bottles of shampoo… but he also brought a frying pan and that should probably offset his debt but I don't think it will because Mary's sort of a stickler for collecting all the shampoo she loaned people - sort of like the mob in a way. Hee! A shampoo mob! "Hand over da suds or I'll whack youse…" ok, stop. Focus. So now Mary has one less bottle of shampoo than she did before, and she has a frying pan but then she made the mistake of giving Lorelei a bottle of shampoo and a toothbrush and what does Lorelei think Mary is, a drugstore? And why does Mary seem to be the designated provider of sundries to all her friends? I hope she went to Costco for all this stuff…ok stop. Focus."
I like to get involved in the daily lives of my word problem characters, you see. It's a time sink, though.
I did the math section first, since the coffee had kicked in early and I wanted to be freshest for algebra, and then I tackled the reading comprehension section. "Which of the following best summarizes the main points of the passage?", "In what sort of publication would this passage mostly likely be found?", "What is the meaning of the word 'monotonous' in the third sentence?" That sort of stuff. Again, not that difficult but after about 9 pages of this I was really ready for a cold Pepsi and a walk. And there were many pages to go before I could sleep.
But I finished the reading section with plenty of time to spare. So much time, in fact that I was able to review all my answers to both the reading and math sections before tackling the writing. This was a good thing because I found a couple of mistakes I'd made. Word to the wise: Check Your Work! They don't tell you that in school for nothing. Mary and Peter's shampoo saga had a twist and it got ugly when Lorelei asked for a bottle of conditioner two weeks after she'd agreed to pay back the toothbrush debt and didn't.
The essay section was the part I was least concerned about. I write on this site in a pretty loose, colloquial style, but the classic five paragraph essay format has never given me any problem. The rule (in case you don't know it) is: "Tell them what you're going to tell them, then tell them with examples and support, and then tell them what you told them." It's what every memo to upper management consists of. My argument essay topic was some goofy thing about school budget cuts and whether or not I thought that programs like art and music and athletics should take the brunt of cuts when they came. I didn't have a lot of time to wrestle with my ethics on the matter so I just picked a side and started arguing for it. Nobody's going to come kicking down my door because I'm not certain I really agree with everything I wrote.
I mean, they won't, right?
My personal essay topic was much harder. The introduction said something like, "Everybody has loyalties. People are loyal to schools, governments, rules, family, friends, etc. Everyone at one time or another has had their loyalty tested. Write about a time when you experienced a conflict of loyalties. What happened? How did you resolve it? What was the result?"
Well, I have a problem with the question right off the bat. They state that everybody has experienced a conflict of loyalties, but I couldn't think of a single instance of that in my own life. At least none that I was going to tell them about in a test essay! It's a pretty personal question.
Besides, the whole thing sounded a little suspicious to me. I mean, who's going to write an essay concerning their torn feeling about their loyalty to the government? An Al Queda member, maybe, but nobody who wants to be a teacher, I'll tell you that. You have to take a freaking loyalty oath to be a teacher, you know. A loyalty oath! So you have to wonder what they were getting at with this loyalty essay question.
I couldn't have gotten a nice, simple "Talk about your hero" essay, could I? No "Tell us about the best class you ever took" or "Write about your favorite teacher" for me, huh? Nope. I get the essay topic that immediately gets me worried that my file will be sent to the FBI because they've determined that I'm a subversive agent.
I'm not paranoid. Much.
Despite the fact that I don't believe anyone, including me, was going to write some sort of Unibomber manifesto about their questioning of the government, I was stuck. I had to come up with some instance of conflict of loyalty from my own life. Or did I? Nowhere does anyone say that the essay has to be true, it just says it can't be in someone else's words and has to be about the topic.
You all know what I did here, don't you? Yep. I made something up.
At first I worried that I was doing something unethical, but all they're trying to do is assess your writing skills. They're not going on a fact-finding mission to ensure that your story is true. The essays are graded blindly, meaning nothing but your CBEST assigned ID number is on the test paper. So unless you admit to serial killings, my guess is that they don't give a damn whether a story is true or not. Why should they?
Of course, after I turned in my test and left, I spent the rest of the day doing that thing where a few hours after you take a test you realize one of the "easy" questions actually had a trick in it and you missed the trick, thereby picking the wrong answer. And you really want to kick yourself because now you know you got at least one answer wrong and that means there are more out there that you missed. And you (if you're me) start getting really nervous about your test score and fearing that you totally goofed the whole thing up. So you (again, if you're me) start pacing around and trying to figure out how you're going to get through the next three weeks before the scores are released.
At least until someone puts a drink in your hand and orders you to sit the hell down and chill out.
I'm a fine test taker but a very poor test "waiter for results". The next three weeks would be unbearable, except for the fact that I have another one of these types of tests to take in four weeks. I have a lot more studying to do for that one because it's more comprehensive. I have to re-study history and science and art. Lots of studying to do.
And while I'm at it, I'm going to try to experience some conflicts of loyalties in the next month. You know, just in case.
- KNP February 22, 2004