September 17, 2019

In Defense of High Stakes

In setting students up for success beyond school, is there merit to high-stakes forms of assessment?
by Nicholas Zufelt

Tonight, I wrote an email to over 80 of my colleagues. It was written to the academic advisors of our seniors—those adults on campus who will hopefully be encouraging members of the senior class to apply for the Workshop, our school within a school. The email took very little time to craft, as I pulled some wording from a similar email sent earlier to the senior class itself. So why, then, did it take me over an hour of tweaking, worrying, and fidgeting to send it out into the ether?

In many classrooms, particularly STEM classes like mine, a similar moment is common. The high-stakes environment of a test worth some large percentage of a course’s final grade may not be immediately translatable to writing an email, but we can find some likenesses. There was procrastination, as I waited for a colleague to send a note with goals parallel to mine. There was lower-order thinking, as I massaged her words into something that could work for my distinct task, rather than writing my own from scratch. And there certainly was a great deal of hand-wringing, as I tried my best to bring my finger to the “send” button without yet another read-through.

For the past few years, I’ve tried to reduce the number of short (one-period), high-stakes exercises in my class. The reason for this is nothing new: it feels inauthentic to expect students to perform such activities when they won’t be as common in their adult lives. But, is that true? And how can I be someone who in the classroom replaces tests with projects while at the same time feel so inadequately prepared to face brief high-stakes environments? Am I setting them up for failure? What is the right balance of tests to the possible alternatives?

This morning, I was gently reminded to consider writing for this blog. We were encouraged to offer more questions than answers. I think of this as an idea referred to in Zen Buddhism as the beginner’s mind—being curious, open, and unburdened (though potentially unhelped) by a bundle of preconceptions. Could owning a beginner’s mind have anything to do with being more prepared to face high-stakes tasks? If the fear of failure in crafting an email were to have less of an impact on me as I wrote, could I write with clearer, more appropriate thoughts?

I wonder how many times I will proofread this post before uploading it.

Categories: The Workshop

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