How Does Testing Work, Exactly?

We had a great question from a parent after testing this week which I thought would be a good opportunity to allow me an avenue to explain things about testing, what we look for, and how one does or does not pass and other things parents and students might have questions about.

There are two to three parts to a student’s testing — the forms portion, the sparring and/or one-steps portion, and the board breaking portion for students who are brown belts and higher ranks. Students must pass all parts to advance to their next belt rank.

Board breaking is an absolute. You either break the boards within 3 tries, or you don’t. When students don’t break their boards at testing, we pull them aside to break afterward so they don’t leave with thoughts along the lines of “I’ll never be able to break a board ever again.”

Sparring and forms are not so absolute. That is because, while there is a standard we hope students meet, there is a great deal of gray area around that standard that is still deemed passable. When I think about this visually, I see a black line in the center of a gray circle. That circle starts out as very large for a white belt and gets progressively smaller the higher in rank you go. In addition, every single student’s circle is unique to that person. So, even though students are at the same belt rank, their circles are often not the same size. It's one of the things, I think, that makes martial arts so great — we look at you, where you are, what you can do, physical limitations, where your growth zone is, and where your breaking point is as well.

Our goal for you at testing is to hit that black mark. That’s why there are multiple opportunities to do your form when you’re not testing for the 6th degree master black belt (three for colored belts, two for black belts). If you don’t hit it that mark when doing your form the first time, you may be asked to repeat your form. Students can and often pass the form portion on their first try due to the gray circle. However, especially at the higher ranks, we will push you to get to that black line and have you repeat your form to see if you can meet that line.

After testing, the judges let me know every single thing that a student does or doesn’t do. And, based upon our standard and that gray circle along with the individual student’s standard and their gray circle, I determine whether or not they’ve earned a new belt rank. This is something that is no easy task. I look at multiple factors when considering whether or not to pass a student which include everything from their ability, their indomitable spirit, and what may or may not be going on in their lives at that very moment. And while it may not be considered “fair” by many to do that, it IS fair to that student. As an instructor, it’s my job to push you out of your comfort zone. But it’s also my job to be sure I am fair to each and every student on their own terms.

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