Updated: Dec 6, 2018
Most of us use some sort of ranking system in the martial arts. Whether it's a belt, a certificate, or a title of some sort, it's still a ranking system.
How we GET rank - the actual process of moving from one rank to another - is actually more varied than you might think.
As you might know, I've actually trained in several arts under many instructors, mostly due to moving cross country three times after I started training.
As a result, I've either been the student - or the parent of the student - in lots of different systems and schools. Accordingly, I've experienced lots of ways that people move up in rank in the martial arts.
Here's what I've seen (or in one case, heard about) thus far:
1) The Formal Test
This is a test where the students are asked to demonstrate in front of the instructor and/or a board of judges that they understand and can perform the requirements to be promoted to the next rank. Students are made aware of the test date well ahead of the test, and usually the test is held in a public forum outside of the normal class schedule, where parents, relatives, friends and others may attend.
These tests can last anywhere from as short as an hour to as many as several days. Sometimes ranking instructors in the same or related arts from outside of the school or organization may sit on the board.
2) The Informal Test
Much like a formal test, but with less pressure and in a normal class environment with the regular instructors. I've seen this type done most often with low-ranking belts where testing them doesn't take a whole lot of time. For schools that "test" for belt stripes, this is how stripes are often given.
3) The Surprise Test
It's a test like the first two, but, there's no warning. You show up to class or a seminar or camp, and it's testing time, no preparation time given. You pass or fail right now.
4) The Secret Test and Surprise Promotion
This is how I was granted my black belt (Dayang Isa). The person being tested is unaware that there's any test at all. They are evaluated by several qualified instructors in an informal environment (like the "play time" before or after a seminar or at a camp). They are then assessed a rank and given promotion if the testers believe they deserve it.
5) No-Test Promotion
The person is granted the next rank when the instructor determines that he or she is now performing at the next rank level. Mostly, this is a surprise promotion, like the Secret Test. I think we see this most often among our the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu friends, but they're not the only ones who do it. My promotion to 2nd Degree wasn't a test per-se, it was a demonstration in front of a board (but my promotion wasn't at risk at all).
I have experienced all but the Surprise Test personally.
I definitely enjoyed the Secret Test and Surprise Promotion when I was raised to Black Belt. I literally had no idea I had been tested up until just before my teacher asked me to step forward at the end of a seminar we were all attending to give me my rank certificate and new belt. Of all the ways I was promoted, this was obviously my favorite.
I think that formal and/or informal testing is necessary for kids, as they need that a concrete feeling of the rite of passage and achievement as they move up in rank. This is also why using "stripes" on belts for certain milestones between ranks seems to work really well for kids. I also think it's needed for the parents of the kids as well, to demonstrate to them how their child is progressing in their studies (much like a dance or music recital).
For adults, I don't know if formal/informal testing is always the right thing to do, even if it's pretty traditional and the most common method of rank promotion in the martial arts.
I think we earn rank in class on a daily basis, and performance on a test is not necessarily an accurate measure of how well someone knows the art and can do what is required for rank.
BUT - if you believe the pressure of a test is an important way to measure if one is worth of a given rank, I think the surprise test has a lot going for it. Having to perform at high level with no warning is far better than giving them warning and preparation time!
What do you think? What are the pros and cons of testing (or not testing) for promotion? Do you have a favorite story about a test or promotion you've experienced or attended? Did I miss a form of testing in my list above? Tell us about it!