Last week I took my End of Training (EOT) test in Spanish. Although the testing experience was pretty much what I expected, I have to say that the outcome was not.
So, before you scroll straight through this post looking for the short answer on what happened, the answer isn’t cut and dried. I kind of passed, and I kind of didn’t. Let me explain.
In March 2015 when I took my Russian EOT, I was super happy – but not surprised – to receive the required 2/2 score in speaking and reading. Unofficially, I had already reached the 2/2 level more than a month early. I never had any real doubt what the outcome of the test would be. I was a little nervous, and tried really hard to do my best. But was I going to walk out of there with my 2/2 and go to my onward consular training on time? You bet. And I did.
In Spanish, although I tested at or above target during all three progress assessments in October, November, and January, not reaching the required 3/3 by the end always felt… more possible in the Spanish program than in the Russian program. Why? Isn’t Spanish a way easier language than Russian?
Well, achieving a 3/3 is a more sophisticated use of the language. It’s the difference between talking in bullet-point facts, and talking about nuanced and complex topics while stating, explaining, and defending a position.
In truth, I have been speaking at this level of Spanish for a few weeks, but perhaps less consistently than I would want, depending on how facile I feel with a given topic.
But it honestly didn’t occur to me that I wouldn’t pass. I study, I do the work, I get it, and I don’t panic or choke when testing. Sure, I have my introvert struggles with organizing my thoughts, but I never had trouble rising to the occasion when I really needed to. And with a positive attitude, and years of prior Spanish study, I felt ready.
So a week ago I came to FSI early in the morning, warmed up with my instructor rather than spending the time alone to collect my head, and went to the Language Testing Unit (LTU) to do my exam.
During the exam, I felt mostly good and like I was doing well. I definitely felt like I had improved from the January test. The environment was collegial and somewhat relaxed. I did the social conversation, presentation, interview, read all the articles, and even joked around and made the tester and examiner laugh. Two hours later I went back to class feeling pretty sure I had passed and it was over. I had been the last student from our class to test, and on the last day.
In the afternoon, my classmates and I went with our instructor to a local Mexican restaurant to celebrate the end of our program. They had already all received their results; two had passed both speaking and reading, and the other passed reading only and would be extended another four weeks for speaking. We were all happy. I ate fish tacos and waited for my results to hit my inbox.
I went home and puttered around the house. Finally, my results hit my phone and when I opened the email and scrolled to the bottom, my mouth dropped open in shock.
2+/3. Meaning I passed the reading, but fell just short on the speaking.
I was dumbfounded. I felt surprised, then angry, then really, really sad and dumb. I told my classmates and they were also surprised. All weekend I racked my brain trying to think of what I could have done differently, better. I thought of some things, but… a 2+? Really?
I went out to the movies with V, to the gym, and out to brunch with my A-100 friend K, but through it all, I honestly felt bummed, confused, and exhausted. I was relieved I’d nailed the reading score, but went back and forth between feeling like a failure and not concurring with my speaking score.
Normally, what would happen in this case is that an officer would be extended for four more weeks of class training. Only then would they be able to test again, and test they must, because without a 3/3 there is no going to post.
Well, what’s wrong with this? The more training, the better! Right? Except in most cases an officer already has a bunch of work-related trainings that have been lined up for months right after language ends.
And an officer and their family and their new post probably have a bunch of expectations around their arrival date, and shifting that by a month can cause heaps of headaches, real or imagined.
And between balancing maintenance classes early in the morning, an extra four weeks of language training tacked on, and everything else you have to manage at the end stage before a Permanent Change of Station (PCS), going through another EOT can really suck.
There are a few different options. First, students are entitled to a review process when they don’t concur with their score, or want to respectfully ask for another set of eyes and ears on their results. Second, in some cases a post will extend a language waiver, which allows an officer to come to post with whatever score they’ve already earned. It’s not common, but it can happen depending on the level of the officer and when a timely arrival is preferred.
Whether a review boosts my score to a 3, or I get a waiver, or both, or I do more training and test again, or test again without more training remains to be seen. The particulars are evolving so it’s not something I can put too fine a point on yet. I have made my peace with all of this, though, because I know I must have been right on the line between the 2+ and the 3. Maybe a handful less errors, a different presentation topic, discussing a different piece of news – would have pushed me over?
I still feel a little chagrined that it didn’t work out that way, for whatever reason(s). But at the end of the day, I believe in myself and know I “showed up” to achieve what I set out to do when I started this journey last September.
I leave you with this thought: I was recently listening to a new podcast called Modern American Diplomacy. The January 28 episode featured State Department legend Ambassador Maura Harty. Ambassador Harty is now retired, but during her 27 years in the Foreign Service she held many prestigious positions, including Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Consular Affairs, U.S. Ambassador to Paraguay, and Executive Secretary to then-U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell.
During the podcast, she talked about a job she had as an entry-level officer in the early 1990s that went sideways after a conflict with her political appointee boss that, despite her best efforts, she was unable to resolve. She ended up relegated to a Xerox room for several months, which she described as embarrassing and irritating. Ambassador Harty’s point was to offer encouragement. “When you’re in the Xerox room, figuratively or literally,” she explained, “it’s hard to see a time beyond that when you might prosper again.” You can and will make a comeback with what she described as self-deprecating humor, perseverance, and hope.
I’m obviously not drawing a direct parallel with my EOT situation; my work life is filled with nothing but respect and professionalism in all directions. But I did appreciate the reminder that everything need not be perfect to be perfectly OK. And that’s something I needed to hear to get back on the horse again.
After a week of reflection, I feel grateful for the support from colleagues, the Spanish Department, Post, friends, and family. I will keep trying, as I have this whole time, to be the best Spanish speaker I can be – whether a piece of paper says I “have to” or not. Someday in Mexico when I have to tell someone their loved one has died, or assure a prisoner of their right to counsel, or explain to a mother that her child is entitled (or not) to a U.S. passport, the skill and compassion I will bring to the conversation will be just as important as the words I choose, and I know I can do it.