Test Anxiety in the Age of Gradelessness

As we move closer to semester finals, I find myself doubting my ability to assess each student fairly based on a semester final.  Our school mandates a semester final and after having dived into the world of Gradelessness I find myself getting more and more anxious; more and more unsure that what I am doing is the right path.

There is no doubt that my approach during the semester has shown mixed results.  Upper division students have been slow to embrace the concept after two and three years of teachers defining their success.  My 9th graders love the approach.  As we have moved through the semester, they seem to have become more comfortable taking control of their success through the process of assessing their on work and then dialoguing with me about a grade. One young lady reflected this evening as she waited for her ride, that she feels really comfortable in my classroom and although she feels some stress to perform, she really likes that the stress is, “…less and different. I always feel like, more comfortable when I’m in this class.  Like I’m really learning something.  And this is my first class of the day!”  Such anecdotal feedback gives me hope, but it doesn’t change the anxiety I experience as Finals creep up on us.

Finals are always stressful.  Students find out whether or not they have actually learned anything over a semester.  Semester finals define who they are as ‘A’ students, ‘B’ students or abject failures in their eyes and the eyes of their parents.  Semester finals are often the difference between enjoying the Christmas Break or spending it grounded with limited access to friends. But have these finals actually told us anything other than, “Billy and/or Betty have test anxiety.”  Really?  How do you know?

High stakes tests rarely tell us anything more than…a small percentage of students are great at handling test stress or a small percentage have severe stress anxiety or the largest percentage, you know the proverbial Bell Curve of students, will take the test which will have absolutely no effect on their grade.  So why do we do this?  “We’ve always done it this way.”  Or, “This is a life lesson.”  Or better yet, “This is what the colleges expect. We need to prepare them for college!”  Tradition is a surely a formidable foe.

At this point in the semester, my students and I have assessed, discussed, dialogued, reviewed and conferenced enough that we know exactly where they are in their 2017 educational journey.  Even my upper division students, who are far more reticent to embrace Gradelessness as anything more than an opportunity to prioritize the assignments in all their classes, have honestly evaluated their progress.

So, I suppose that if I am honest with myself, this anxiety has less to do with how I will grade them as much as how the administration and their parents will view and thus judge what they have done up to this point in the school year. Will they really understand that their student is actually beginning to own their own education? I hope so.

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About danthescienceman

Educator and coach for 32 years. I love to run. I love the river and I love traveling to other countries as a visitor rather than a tourist. My vocation is service to young people. I do this through my teaching, coaching, mentoring and modeling how to truly live the life I have created. Mantra: Gifts are best honored when they are shared in the service of others.
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One Response to Test Anxiety in the Age of Gradelessness

  1. Dan I would love to talk to you as a fellow science teacher about what your class looks like for going gradeless. I started my year telling students that they would be reflecting on their learning and helping me to decide their final letter grades for the semester. Unfortunately I have slidden back to the familiar point mongering system and I am smacking myself all over for not being able to figure out how to do this properly. I bought and devoured and royally marked up Starr Sackstein’s Hacking Assessment book but so far I have only seen LA teachers as examples for going gradeless. The concept and the ideal of helping students value learning for the sake of it are what drove me to this but the stumbling blocks of how in the heck to get the learning samples and portfolio items in a dual language middle school science class in the midst of a sweeping curriculum change and overwhelming student apathy with it’s accompanying behavior challenges have left me foundering. Any ideas?

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