Beyond the exam booklet – finding value in assessments

The memory of a haunting exam experience

The memory of the stark white pages of my Bursary English exam booklet staring up at me as an uncharted expanse still haunts me. A university scholarship was the prize, a beacon that had guided me through countless nights poring over set texts and practising essay structures. The weight of expectation on my teenage shoulders was as heavy as the textbooks I’d devoured in preparation. Yet, as I scanned the questions I’d seen in various forms a hundred times before, a chilling realisation set in: my mind was as blank as the page before me.

Thoughts darted like frantic fish in a drying pond, unable to be caught. I attempted to coax words onto paper to begin an essay I had crafted in my head for months, but they would not materialise. My hand was unresponsive, a useless tool that had forgotten its purpose. I just couldn’t remember a thing about anything.

A teenage girl sitting at her school desk taking an exam, she looks worried and stressed.
Me trying to remember what I studied for months... and my brain: '404 - Knowledge Not Found.

I remember watching the clock, time slipping through my fingers. I had barely scribbled a few sentences. I knew it was bad. I had choked.

Later that day, I found myself at McDonald’s, slumped in a booth surrounded by my friends. Their faces were animated, recounting their own exam experiences with either grim satisfaction or cavalier indifference. When my turn came, I muttered, “I bombed it.”

They dismissed my comment, assuming I was being modest, hiding a performance that, like usual, was better than most. “Come on, we all know you’re gonna ace it,” they chortled. But the pit in my stomach knew the bitter truth. This wasn’t modesty or a plea for reassurance; it was the raw, unvarnished reality of failure.

The impact of the experience

This happened in the 90’s. It still feels like it was yesterday. It had been my first bursary exam. I’d built those exams up to be so important, crippling myself in the process. For the first (and unfortunately not last) time in my academic life, I had choked. I had studied, maybe not enough, maybe a little too much. Regardless, under the scrutinising glare of those fluorescent lights, I had crumbled when the time came.

Assessment results aren’t always an indication of capability. Sometimes, things just go wrong.

Fortunately, I recovered in the remaining subjects, with combined scores resulting in a B Bursary. Enough to get into University but nowhere near the scholarship-level results I’d been aiming for. The grade E I received for English that year wasn’t just a mark on a piece of paper; it was a symbol of the moment I’d let the pressure consume me, a glaring red stain on my record of almost straight A’s. It also completely changed how I viewed my ability in the subject. Despite winning awards for essay writing and achieving A’s in previous years, I stopped believing in my writing ability.

Assessment results aren’t always an indication of capability

So why do I relive this horrible memory? Well, to highlight how sometimes assessment results aren’t an indication of capability. Sometimes, things just go wrong.

The nature of assessments

Assessments, at their core, are tools designed to measure an individual’s knowledge, skills, or abilities. Whether they’re in the form of written tests, practical demonstrations, or oral interviews, the goal is ostensibly the same: to ascertain proficiency against a standardised set of criteria.

However, despite their objective facade, assessments can be inherently biased. Assessment bias can stem from various sources—cultural, language, socio-economic backgrounds, and even the content or structure of the assessment itself. For instance, standardised tests often favour those with greater access to resources like tutoring or test preparation courses or those more familiar with the test’s language and cultural references. In my case, I lost the battle of nerves. At the time, I didn’t have the skills I needed to overcome the crippling anxiety I was feeling. My result had very little to do with my aptitude for the subject.

The scales of justice sitting on a school desk.
The scales of justice are here to weigh your answers... and your sanity.

Assessment results can sometimes lead to a disparity in performance that doesn’t accurately reflect an individual’s true capabilities or potential. This concept of bias becomes particularly poignant when translated into workplace learning and assessment. In a professional environment, the stakes of biased assessments can be high—impacting career progression, employee morale, and even the organisation’s overall success. Workplace assessments, whether for hiring, promotion, or professional development, must be carefully designed to minimise inherent biases and genuinely reflect an individual’s competence and potential. This requires a multi-faceted approach, incorporating diverse assessment methods and ongoing evaluation of the assessment tools used.

The role of development in workplace assessments

Moreover, in the workplace, the purpose of assessment extends beyond measuring proficiency—it’s also about development. Practical workplace assessments are formative, not just summative; they provide ongoing feedback that helps individuals grow in their roles. This is in contrast to the one-off, high-stakes nature of many academic tests, which often fail to offer opportunities for feedback and improvement.

Incorporate principles of fairness, continuous feedback, and developmental support in workplace assessments.

Incorporating principles of fairness, continuous feedback, and developmental support in workplace assessments can mitigate the pressure and anxiety often associated with high-stakes testing environments. Just as importantly, they can foster a culture of continuous improvement and learning, aligning more closely with the real-world demands of today’s dynamic work environments.

Evolving assessment strategies for fairness and effectiveness

Thus, while the haunting memory of a failed exam from decades ago serves as a personal reminder of the limitations of traditional assessments, it also propels a forward-thinking approach to how we assess in a modern educational and professional landscape. In recognising and addressing the inherent biases in our assessment practices, we not only enhance the fairness of the assessments but also their effectiveness in cultivating capable and resilient individuals.

By revisiting these critical issues through personal experience and professional implications, we underscore the importance of evolving our assessment strategies to be more inclusive, supportive, and reflective of actual ability. If you are looking to get involved in assessment writing, enrol in our NZQA assessment writing course to boost your expertise.

Note: The New Zealand Qualifications Authority ensure that New Zealand qualifications and credentials are recognised and meet the needs of learners in the changing world.

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