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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.

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4 Responses

  • Chris Redmond

    Hi, Stewart First off, congrats on the new job at HUFS! Your article is compelling to read - much as I've come to expect. I can identify with these situations, for sure. Here at CAU, we are also bound by grading restrictions and this makes me feel somewhat dirty when writing and grading the exams. I will admit, I have taken 1-2% off certain students simply to meet the required quota. I remember the same thing happened to me in 2006 after I did my Leaving Cert. At the time, I cursed the injustice of it all, and swore I would never put myself in the same position. Well, lo and behold, 11 years later, I have found myself doing the same thing, and it does not fill me with pride. The argument appears to go that there should be a natural curve of ability in the class, and your grading ought to reflect that, but what about classes of higher ability? Or what if, god forbid, your teaching has been so damn effective that you are getting a higher-than-normal percentage of As and a lower-than-normal distribution of Ds? Admittedly, I haven't looked into the rationale behind this very closely, but it does seem to be political rather than educational. Shouldn't we be celebrating a class of high-achievers? I thought that's what we all wanted, but now I've realized, teachers sleep more soundly if their grades reflect an even distribution. I don't think this should be so, but I remain open to persuasion... I doubt there's a simple solution to the situation you described so eloquently above. Blame the institutional requirements too much and you're accused of shirking responsibility; cave into her (not unreasonable) demands, and suddenly you have an office full of expectant students awaiting confirmation of their improved grade. My own experience so far has been this: "Give students an inch and they'll take a yard." Any possible weakness on your part will not easily be forgotten. Though they may be quiet in class, students talk - and remember, when grades are everything, they will do anything they possibly can to have a shot at a higher score. I have even had students here ask me if they could rewrite their essay. I would never bend to such audacity, but I know if I did, the floodgates would open and there would be no logical way I could deny a B+ student the chance to rewrite his essay to get an A-. Whatever you do, be consistent in it, and then you can never be accused of showing favoritism. As long as students feel you are being fair, I don't think they will ever complain too much.


  • Lizzie

    Wonderful article Stewart. I can say I have definitely been in a similar position before! It is so hard to ensure the grading curve is maintained while simultaneously ensuring each student is assessed fairly on their abilities. This is particularly so in leveled classes where the students are all actually of a very similar ability. I think sometimes I tend to grade more towards effort shown then ability in those cases, as the ability is too similar to call. Thank you so much for your wonderful contribution, this was a really brave piece to write.


  • Stewart Gray

    Thanks a lot. Glad you liked it. Interesting you say 'effort shown'. I often try to do so as well, but I'm not sure I'm quite up to it: every so often a student suddenly demonstrates some impressive English, and I feel like 'I didn't know they could do that.' And then I worry, how much of my assessment is based on faulty impressions?


  • Stewart Gray

    Hey Chris, You're quite right here, I'd say. A lot of my in-class 'policies' with respect to everything from attendance to grading are informed by the idea that giving an inch is a risky proposition. To my mild disgust, I find myself insisting (albeit gently) that students provide evidence for the reason behind any absence, even though some of these reasons include funerals, serious illness and the like. It all comes from the fear that people will just stop turning up if I give them the impression that I won't demand them to account for themselves. And yeah, I would agree that curved grading is political. Mightn't we see it as a sort of blanket attempt to stop shiftless teachers from handing out all A's? Anyway, thanks for reading and enjoying :)