Formal Testing can be a Stressful Form of Feedback
How do we usually respond to receiving grades and report cards, or transcripts from our teachers and professors for assignments, quizzes, tests, and exams? One’s past experiences can impact on how we feel about getting graded. How we respond also depends on how well we think we prepared for the testing, how much effort we actually put into preparing for learning the materials, how others did and how you compare to them, and how your parents and teachers respond to the grade. Thus, we can all come up with personal memories of us failing a test, acing it, doing a re-write later after calling in sick the day of the testing, cramming the night before, and perhaps even rolling up your sleeves to study harder to get better marks on the next test.
Perhaps we have experiences of withdrawing from a course after a failed test, changing sections because of a poor grade on an essay or assignment, (we all know certain instructors grade more fairly, others are much tougher graders), requesting a chance to do additional work to improve a poor grade, getting extra tutoring to prepare for a tough exam, and even shifting programs and courses depending on how you will be evaluated (more exams, or more essays).
Fast-forward into workplace learning, and the big stress test is the performance review, or a report card on your performance, tied to a promotion depending on how well you do. The stress never goes away when it comes to being evaluated. High stakes exams are even more stressful, for workplace certifications, for example, or for language proficiency exams or college placement tests. Participants in employment training programs now are expected to do some kind of placement tests to establish their levels of computer skills, reading, writing and numeracy skills.
Part of building a civil learning society is creating more reasonable guidelines of practice for introducing grading for low-stakes learning so that it is done without so much negative stress. The whole idea of imposing/forcing on learners what educators consider important for learning, and then testing whether learners have learned it, and then assigning a grade to how well learners met outcomes, is the cornerstone of our formal education system. It is in many ways an impoverished, inefficient system for evaluating learning. High-stakes assessments are stressful, but then again, most people believe that those exams need to be in place to ensure that the public is protected. There is implied consent by the public; testing needs to be rigorous enough to ensure professionals with the credentials can actually do things they are being paid to do.
In many cases, however, despite how it might feel for those undergoing rigorous testing, the formal professional exam is assessing how well learners meet specific standards of skills/knowledge to perform tasks. These standards benefit society because of credentials (certificate, diploma, degree) and protect individuals and groups of people. High-stakes tasks carried out by professionals are regulated by professional associations which determine the type of training required and determine which educational institutions can deliver the training.
The concern is that our society is so concerned with credentialism, however, that there is little room for other ways to determine if a person can do something well, especially in cases where learning is not required for high-stakes situations. This creeping credentialism has been introduced in more and more ways and in more settings. The outcomes-based evaluation model requires a set of goals, a list of activities that break learning down into steps, and then a final test to evaluate how much is learned, with a grade assigned.
Formal grading cannot accurately describe our emotional responses to learning, nor our changing values and beliefs. Nor does it fill in the gaps in giving meaning to our transforming learning experiences that help us become more responsive as lifelong learners and eventually even mentors in the future.