Why I Don’t Give Tests & Hate Grades

I assess my students to assess myself.

As I finalize my courses for this year, I find myself changing readings and reorganizing course content. One of the things I like to do is change my methods of assessment. In doing so, I research all kinds of assessment techniques and must constantly ask myself: What is it I want my students to learn?

This is hard for me because what I want students to learn is unique to each student. The content and skills they individually need is a reflection of who they are and where they’ve been. Because I cannot attend to my students on such an individual level, I do my best to provide a breadth of assessments so that everyone has a chance to demonstrate their knowledge and skills most effectively.

This is of course more work for me, but I find that students appreciate diversity mostly because they don’t get as bored as quickly. I appreciate diversity because different types of assessments provide different types of feedback. Feedback about my students’ knowledge acquisition, about my instructional practices, about course readings, and about students’ skill development. Couple my primary 3 or 4 assignments with more formative classroom assessment techniques (CATs) such as discussion questions, games, debates, crafting, book clubs, films, observations, and field trips, and I get a pretty good sense of what my students are gaining from the course.

This is assessment for learning. It’s what I believe in.

Unfortunately, our educational system is built around learning for assessment, so I struggle with the fact I am required to give students grades. During my own educational experiences, I came across a few professors who said ‘If I didn’t have to give grades, I wouldn’t’.  I recall scoffing at this sentiment because to students, professors bathe in the power that allows them to give any grade they want based on arbitrary, subjective interpretations of students’ work.

I don’t want to be perceived that way. In fact, I go out of my way to discuss with my students on the first day of class the assessment techniques. My syllabi clearly state the reasoning behind every assignment and the accompanying learning goals. I give rubrics for everything so the students and I are on the same page (and this has saved my butt many times when students want to discuss why they received a lower grade than expected). But I really give rubrics so that students understand what it is I am trying to do.

I am not trying to be mean, assert my authority, or get you to agree with me. In fact, I almost never share my personal opinions about course content. I do my best to provide well rounded readings that represent multiple viewpoints (but I draw that line at including poorly researched or poorly written texts) so that students are given the information necessary to form substantiated opinions. Over the span of one course, I mention multiple times: ‘I don’t care what you say; I care that you back it up’. They seem to be surprised and mistrustful at first, but they quickly learn that I mean it.

In that way, I do follow constructivist theories. I believe that individuals create their own meanings. I also agree with sociocultural theory that asserts people filter information through a social lens. What does that mean to me? It means that when I’m forced to grade students’ work, I am undermining what I believe to be true about the learning process: your truth is not my truth because your experiences are not mine.

Sigh…but I have no choice in the matter. The system requires professors to numerically represent students’ progress. In an ideal world, I’d let students assess themselves because they are the best judge of their learning. But I can’t. So I do my best to make learning goals clear, present a wide range of perspectives, create a classroom climate where students feel safe to challenge me, their peers, and the text, and most of all provide opportunities for students to challenge themselves.