According to Dictionary.com, a milestone was originally “a stone set up beside a road to mark the distance in miles to a particular place.” But the figurative meaning of the term is “an action or event marking a significant change or stage in development.” This past month I became 70 years old, which can be considered a milestone of sorts.
Another term in my title today is millstone. The literal meaning of this word (again from dictionary.com) is “each of two circular stones used for grinding grain.” But its figurative meaning is “a heavy and inescapable responsibility.”
Obviously, I like the alliteration and the parallel structure of these two words, but their juxtaposition also fits my theme in this month’s Chair’s Report. Let me try to relate these two concepts to TIRF.
For many years, I have taught a graduate seminar on language assessment. The course focuses primarily on teacher-developed assessment tools, but it also covers various broader topics, including high-stakes standardized testing, test anxiety, and washback (the effects of a test on teaching and learning). In teaching this course, I have my students take many tests and quizzes, so that they will understand the test takers’ experience. I do this because I firmly believe that experiential learning is an important component of teachers’ professional development.
That’s the professional context. But as often happens, our professional lives and personal lives may overlap. Upon reaching the milestone of becoming 70 years old, I also faced a millstone in the form of a test: I had to renew my driver’s license by taking a vision test and a knowledge test—something I hadn’t had to do in over 50 years.
In order to renew my driver’s license, I had to go to the local office of the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) to take a basic vision test and a multiple-choice test on the laws about safe driving in California. I have had a driver’s license for decades, so you would think that taking this exam wouldn’t be a big challenge for me. However, to prepare for the test, I checked the DMV website to review the current laws. You can imagine my surprise when I learned that the test would cover more than one hundred pages of regulations and safe-driving advice. (By the way, if you are looking for authentic materials containing imperative statements, modal auxiliaries, and if clauses, you can click here to access the California Driver Handbook.)
One of the issues we work on in my language assessment seminar is how to define the construct(s) we wish to measure. As soon as I accessed the study materials in the California Driver Handbook, I realized that the construct of knowledge about safe driving had expanded astronomically since I first took this test as a teenager. I think I am a safe driver, but did I really know all this stuff? If not, how could I learn it in the short period of time before my current license expired? And what if I failed the paper-and-pencil test (which, by the way, is now a computer-delivered test)? If so, could I retake the test before my license expired? No—probably not. I had left it too late and my license would expire in five days. Would I have to take the behind-the-wheel driving test? Would I be able to parallel park? Clearly, my imagination was running wild and my test-taking anxiety was increasing.
In fact, as I was driving to the DMV office to take these tests, I stopped at a red light and watched an elderly woman struggle to push her cumbersome bicycle uphill through the crosswalk in front of me. What if I failed the test? Would that be me riding my bike 11.2 miles each morning to get to work, and even further to do errands?
I arrived at the DMV office, stood in line, received my number, and sat down. I didn’t have an appointment, so I had to wait for quite a while, but fortunately I’d brought with me several students’ papers to grade. In the 3.5 hours I waited to get my turn for the vision test and the driver’s knowledge test, I managed to get a fair amount of work done. But as I read my students’ reports, I was aware of the people waiting around me: a mother with a squirming four-year-old and an infant in a baby sling; a father waiting with his teenage daughter for her behind-the-wheel test; a construction worker repeatedly checking his watch. Were those people also experiencing test anxiety?
There is a happy ending to this story. I passed the test. I have my new driver’s license. As a result of this test-taking experience, I have more empathy for students who must take high-stakes language tests. The thought that possible failure would greatly alter the convenience and freedom I enjoy as a licensed driver was almost overwhelming.
Now, how can I tie this story to TIRF? The Foundation also has milestones and millstones. This year, we are celebrating the 20th anniversary of the founding of TIRF – a wonderful milestone indeed! But the corresponding millstone is that we are running a deficit budget. That is, we spend more to run the Foundation and support its many projects than we take in as revenue. As a result, we are constantly eating into TIRF’s cash reserves, and the bank account balance is steadily decreasing.
Will there be a day when TIRF can no longer promote research in our field?
Surely, this question brings about powerful sensations of anxiety that both Ryan Damerow (TIRF’s Chief Operating Officer) and I sense regularly. Along with our brilliant Trustees and with the help of our many partners and supporters, we have worked diligently over the last 20 years to build awareness of TIRF’s mission and of our brand.
And as you can see from the lead story in this month’s newsletter, we are looking to expand our organizational footprint by providing revenue-generating services. I believe that such services can help us overcome the financial hurdles we’ve been facing for years, but progress takes time and our needs are immediate.
With this Chair’s Report, I am once again requesting that you contribute to TIRF’s work by making a financial donation between now and the end of the year. We will be happy to accept a gift of any size from you at any point this year. We can accept checks drawn on US banks, and transmitting a donation online via PayPal is as simple and quick as completing an everyday transaction from an online merchant. We would be honored to have your support, especially during our 20th anniversary year celebration. Please click here to make a donation to TIRF.