Sorry about the Presbyterian shoptalk, but it’s got to be said….
I failed my Polity Exam in seminary. Many times. I failed it the first time, and then I failed it the second time. I may have I failed it a third time, but the jury’s still out.
I asked our polity professor to tutor me, one-on-one. And she did. She spent hours with me, examining me. I wrote papers, I answered questions, I took practice tests, I practically memorized the Book of Order. All of which I got gold stars for. But, no matter what sort of preparation I endured, when the test was sent off to another state, I kept failing.
It was odd, because I did well in seminary. I was a teaching assistant for Greek, Hebrew, Theology, and Church History. I was the research assistant for a professor and the president of the seminary. I had been through the psych evaluations and my IQ was in the 99th percentile of the nation (which… feels as embarrassing to admit as the failure). I had a good GPA.
But I kept failing the Polity exam.
The Presbytery committee, who was in charge of my care, was perplexed. They had seen my grades, my psych evaluations, and they couldn’t figure out what was happening.
I took my last failed exam to the polity professor to find out what I had done wrong. She looked it over and said that I had done nothing wrong. So, I took it to my committee to find out why I failed. They couldn’t figure it out either. They sent the exam back to appeal the decision.
I don’t think the appeal process is working, because it’s been ten years and I still haven’t heard if they granted the appeal.
By this time, I had a church who was also waiting on the decision, but we weren’t hearing anything. Finally, the Synod and Presbytery set up a six-hour written and oral examination, in front of a dozen committee members, a synod staff member, and the executive presbyter. I passed with ease.
When the committee told me I passed, one of the clergywomen said emphatically, “You’ve passed. Now, NEVER TELL ANYONE THAT THIS HAS HAPPENED.”
And I didn’t. I’m pretty sure she wanted to protect me. I was, of course, incredibly embarrassed, so it wasn’t too hard to not talk about it.
But now, ten years into the ministry, as I watch other bright, interesting students struggle through examinations, I’m not sure that it was a failure on my part. I’m not sure these years of silence protected me or protected a defective system.
When I look back on who passed and who failed, it was completely random. Usually, people who grew up in the Presbyterian Church passed. I know an incredibly intelligent and talented pastor who couldn’t pass because she had a learning disability. I know a pastor who failed an exam because he misspelled some words, and made a grammatical error. And, I have spoken to ordination exam graders who proudly bragged that they failed 8 out of 10 of the examinations that they were scoring.
It’s broken, my friends. The ord exam process is not working. I don’t know how long it’s been in disrepair, but I know that it is. And it probably stays busted because of embarrassed people like me who never tell anyone what happened.
It seems obvious what’s wrong. We have open-ended essay questions, which aren’t graded by professors, they’re graded by elders and pastors who have answer sheets. So, we have open-ended questions, but a close-ended number of possibilities for answers. We have graders who may not be able to discern if an alternative or a creative (gasp!) answer might still be correct. Students are failing, not because they give wrong answers, but because they present different answers.
The testing process makes no sense. And, from my experience, there really is no way to appeal. When I was in seminary, nationally, there was a 25 percent failure rate for each essay exam. We had to pass all four exams. Which means… each student had a 100% chance of failing.
How is that fair?
photo’s by truds09