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Testing Results

Although I do not have formal testing of my students, I often hear from students of other dojo who have recently tested. I always urge students to try their best and give my best wishes when I hear that they are promoted. Even if they are not promoted, I pretty much do the same thing.

I recognize that there is a place for testing, particularly in classes with many students or where testing is required because the class is part of high school or college. But since my dojo is small and personalized, there is no compelling reason for a formalized testing system. Instead, we are always observing and testing our students.

I do not charge my students to test, nor do I charge them when they are promoted. I do not give certificates (just a letter for yudansha) and I do not present an embroidered belt to yudansha, just a plain black welt (like I wear). I do not throw a party!

I have heard of schools where a black belt is guaranteed in a certain time period. Now we are talking about contracts: if you comply with the terms specified in the contract (train for the specified time period (and pay the required fees), you have a rightful expectation that you will be promoted. If you comply with the terms of the contract and are not promoted, then there will be a problem ( a breach of contract).

I do not promote students to shodan (first degree black belt) until they are 17. However, being 17 does not mean that a student will be promoted to shodan. A student can expect to train for several years before becoming shodan (my second and third sons trained for 12 years). Some will take longer than others (and vice versa). My students understand that it will take an unspecified time period.

On good thing in our dojo is that students are promoted (at the yudansha level because we give no kyu ranks) as a surprise. Basically, we say, "Surprise, you are promoted!"

This way, a student is not disappointed by failing a test. Failure has such a negative connotation. We want to pass, not fail. If a student comes home from school with an "F", he will be in trouble with his parents. Students want to get an "A".

So when a student fails a Karate test, he will have all that emotional baggage and feel terrible. He will feel like a failure and a loser... at least some students will.

Of course, other students will be motivated to try harder, which is a very good thing. But there will be some students who will feel badly, and I imagine that at least some instructors have received calls from parents wanting to know why their child had "flunked."

I am fortunate to be able to avoid this -- because I avoid the testing process itself. I do not get complaints from parents when I promote their 17 year old to shodan (something that has happened only rarely). Instead, they are pretty happy. Adults who are promoted seem pretty happy too -- although those who understand the process feel a weighty sense of responsibility instead of jubilation.

You have to watch out for quid pro quo (literally something for something). If a student pays for something, he expects something in return. My students do pay tuition and the expectation is that we will teach them the best we can. There is no formal expectation of promotion. I make clear that I do not award kyu ranks and that all mudansha wear white belts. When black belts from other schools or styles want to join our dojo, I tell them that I do not recognize rank outside my own juku (Kishaba Juku Shorin-Ryu) and that in some cases it could take 3 years or so just for the student to get back to zero and start learning from me cleanly (without past habits and mechanics). So generally, people seeking rank do not join our dojo -- people seeking to train and learn do).

Here is my advice for students who take tests in other schools or dojo. If that is what you Sensei wants, then you should try your best, not only for you but for the other students. Take the test seriously and be thoroughly prepared. If you pass, good. Be humble and quiet about it and try harder. If you do not pass, find out why and try your best again. Don't complain.

Don't worry about why someone else might have passed and you did not. Karate is at least partially an art of self defense. If you are attacked, other students won't be there and testing results won't matter. Testing and rank will be the last thing from your mind.

I want to add something else about testing. In school (through graduate school), I was always one of those students who tested better than my ability. I was a really good guesser and sometimes could figure out the answer by getting into the head of the test writer. This is not necessarily a good thing (although it was useful to me), but it has enabled me to see that there might be some students who test better than their ability, and others who test below their ability. What counts is their ability in Karate, not their ability in testing.

Testing is necessary because of rank. Rank is necessary because... why is rank necessary? My point is that we should not assume that testing has always existed and is a necessary thing. When there was no rank, I'll bet that there was no testing -- at least not they type we have today. I think that the testing in the old days was shobu, a challenge match.

To me, the best test of Karate is how the student conducts himself in daily life and in the dojo.

By the way, for my own students I want to announce that the next test will be... all the time, as usual.


Charles C. Goodin