Reflections on a Fearful Assessment


Reflections on a Fearful Assessment

The student approaches me in the break time between classes with a question about her test score. I fish her paper out of the pile and hand it to her. She turns it over to indicate two questions where I have given her only half a point, in both cases because of a missing article. ‘You said you weren’t going to be checking small grammar mistakes,’ she says, her voice level. She’s right; I did say that. All at once, I feel totally cornered, deer-in-the-headlights. My (recent) life flashes before my eyes.

The week before, I’m preparing to give my first mid-term exam at the university I started working at only the previous month. I have printed the papers, one per student, double sided, all of my own design. I’m worried. What if it’s too easy? I’m obliged to limit the number of A and B grades – what if they all score near perfect? Or what if the test is too short? It has to last 50 minutes and now, moments to go before the start, I look down at the paper and it seems so meagre. The students are all seated. I’m nervous. They should know what I’m going to assess, right? That’s only fair. It’s a grammar test – I should only be checking the grammar that we’ve studied. If I assess everything, that may limit creative expression! ‘To be clear,’ I find myself saying aloud, ‘I will only be checking the grammar we’ve studied in class. I will not take points off for other grammar mistakes.’ After I’ve said it, I know at once that I’ve boxed myself in but it’s too late. I hand out the papers, and the test begins.

Some weeks earlier still, I’m discussing how to conduct the upcoming exam with one of my wonderful new colleagues. ‘Do you have any advice for the midterm?’ I ask. ‘Is the school expecting anything particular?’ ‘Well,’ my colleague begins, ‘about 30 questions, multiple-choice should be okay.’ I nod attentively. My colleague goes on, warmly and jovially: ‘We’ve had problems in the past with people making the tests too easy.’ Upon hearing this, I hope the mild panic doesn’t show on my face. I just started here a few weeks back, and I’ve already had to take a day off for illness. If my mid-term isn’t up to scratch… my employers might just start experiencing buyer’s remorse. ‘Any advice to make sure the test is good?’ I calmly inquire. My colleague advises: ‘In my case, I make the last few questions open, so I can take points off if there are mistakes.’ Of course! Open questions are the solution to my worries! That way, I can crank up the strictness if the test turns out to have been too easy. I’m a little uneasy about it but such are the demands of ‘relative grading’.

Now the test is over, and I’m grading. Almost 200 papers to do and the future is looking less-than-bright. Firstly, a number of students have dropped points on the early, ‘easy’ questions, which is rather disheartening. Secondly, the answers to the open questions are so long that they’re taking ages to read, and so varied that it’s hard to assign them points. Hastily, anxiously, I produce a few rubrics. I should have done this before the damn test! Anyway, no time for that now. So many of the students’ answers are so great; all the stories they’re sharing, all the ideas they’re expressing. Minor points of grammar represent the only Achilles heel in many cases. I’ve left myself with no choice. Despairing, I swiftly decide which errors deserve to cost the test-taker a half-point, and begin marking the papers with the ugly triangles that symbolize this penalty. I hope, foolishly, that none of the students will bring this up when they get their papers back. I toy with declining to give them back at all, but I know that in the end I will; my guilt compels me to reveal my deeds.

So there I am, standing before this student who has challenged me, gently, on my blatant hypocrisy. I lower my eyes to her paper. My mind races. I’m lost for words. I think, Give her the points. Then I think, You can’t! You’ve used these criteria for every student! My heart sinks. She’s still waiting for my response. I don’t look her in the eye. ‘To be honest…’ I awkwardly begin. I pause, feeling briefly hopeful that the words to explain it all away will come to me; they do not. In fact, ‘I just needed to take some points off,’ is all I can manage to get out. ‘Oh,’ she responds, her neutral expression full of disappointment, ‘Okay, then.’ And she walks away without another word, leaving me to my private regrets.

Have you ever been in a similar situation? Do you have any advice for teachers such as myself? Please do leave a comment if so. Thank you.