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Reassessing assessments in an era of anxiety

  • 03 October 2022
School reports came out the other day in Queensland and NAPLAN scores just arrived, all of which makes me ponder the nature and purpose is of so many assessments.  

As every parent of a school-age child in Queensland knows, subjects are now assessed every term from Prep. That means from the first day of school, teachers are forced to prepare four- and five-year-olds for assessments four times a year. This continues until Year 12, when they take the big behemoth exams that cause so much stress. The Conversation reported on a study last year that showed 42 per cent of Year 12 students ‘registered high-level anxiety symptoms, high enough to be of critical concern’.

By the time they get to uni, where I teach, students are so anxious that academic staff are ‘strongly discouraged’ from giving exams in the department of our sandstone university.

I’ve been teaching uni for 20 years and each year a higher percentage of my students arrive in class with an SAP (student access plan) for anxiety. Of course, there are many causes for worry in our digitally sped-up contemporary society of pings and dings.

But all these assessments can’t help.

One student said to me last semester, ‘I thought when I finally got to uni the anxiety would stop, but it just keeps getting worse.’

'Let’s trust our teachers to create their own lessons, at least in part, and give them the time, money, and support to do so. They don’t need to test everything. Teachers can gauge how students are doing in other creative ways, without always giving them a mark.'

Assessments serve a valuable purpose: they give us a way to measure what students are learning. The problem is, they don’t seem to be learning. According to the Australian Council for Educational Research, recent results confirm that Australian 15 year-olds continue to show significant declines in math, reading and science when measured against their international counterparts.

Australian students are learning less, and at the same time, never have we seen such an emphasis on assessments in schools.

The day my seven-year-old got a ‘C’ in music was the day I began questioning the Queensland curriculum. She used to love music. Curriculum and testing used to be devised by the teachers, but now it’s all ‘external’, as one veteran educator recently explained to me.

How many children are losing their love of learning for music or math because of external curriculum, assessments, and