Writing and Grading Tests is Hard

I love writing tests. I think the part of my brain that dreams up problems is the reason I was a successful engineering student in college. The professor would cover multiple topics in a month and leading up to the test I would daydream about how they would write the tests. Engineering tests were hard. REALLY HARD. But I had really amazing professors. Dr. Richard Corsi and Dr. Desmond Lawler in the Environmental Engineering department at UT Austin changed the way I view exams. I forgot about a lot of the lessons they taught me but as I get more experienced in teaching and have more time for brain thoughts to stew, I have started to view tests differently.

  1. If the student almost got it correct, why take off a bunch of points?

This is really tough for a teacher. The only time I give a 100 on a test is if the student gets all the answers correct with coherent processes. But do you have to get all the correct answers to get an A+? I used to think that but I don’t anymore. Dr. Lawler used to use the acronym “EP” for “error propagates”. Meaning if you made a mistake early on but the rest of your answers would be correct, then you get full credit. I like this mentality and the IBO grades the same way.

Sometimes I throw a question on the test that I don’t expect many to get. On my last test I threw this problem on there. It’s challenging. The student didn’t get the correct answer but I gave him an A+ on the test anyway. Why? Because in the real world it would have taken minimum collaboration for him/her to get it.


My school has a very liberal retake policy. A student can attempt to demonstrate mastery following a test if they didn’t demonstrate mastery the first time. This makes a lot of teachers uncomfortable because it means students can retake an 80 for a 100 or bomb a test completely and retake it without “consequence”. I have decided to embrace this and grade in a more holistic way.


  1. Be holistic. 

I’ve also decided to take a step back when grading and not assign points to every small detail of the test. I was taught to use grading rubrics on tests and we would have conversations as exhaustive as “Ok let’s take off one point if they don’t rationalize the denominator”. Really? My heart hurt because of these conversations. I now think of the test as more like an English teacher thinks of a rubric for an essay. A student who earns an A would demonstrate mastery of the topic, with easily followed solutions, as well as attempting every problem in a way that is understood. B-students tried all the problems but made initial assumptions/declaration that caused them to go a wrong direction and miss the answer by a lot. With a few corrections at the beginning of the problem they could be redirected towards the correct answer. C students are missing quite a bit of content. They may have gotten answers completely wrong but some answers completely correct. Students who get an F left problems blank or attempted only half the problems.


This mindset is difficult at times because it doesn’t have the safety of a point system but when I take a step back and look at the grades I feel more comfortable with the feedback that I give kids. This also means that grading marks on tests are less of the focus for the students. I like it.

  1. Write problems that reflect the values you hold in class.

Some of my favorite problems in class are slightly out of reach for some students. The efforts they put into the problem are actually more of the focus than just getting the right answer. That’s the value of the problem in class so the test should reflect those same values. That means I don’t expect them to get the correct answer in order to receive credit. It means they better try it and show me that they can make progress.

Dr. Corsi was a master of combining topics into one question. His Fluid Dynamics class helped me refine my skill of guessing what’s on the test. I would look forward to seeing what he crafted in his four question long tests. It made me view assessment as a creative process and not a mandated one.

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The fact that I have to grade kids is one of my least favorite parts of the job. I could go on and on about the reasons why it’s bad but I don’t have too many solutions of how to make it better, especially when things like standards based grading are the norm for your school. But making it fun and holistic? That’s a direction I can go in.

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