Assessment and Mindset, and My Journey in the Struggle

In last week’s class, we talked about assessment. Formative assessment, summative assessment, and how we use assessment wisely (or not) to activate (or not) student learning, feedback loops, and our own teaching. I was all open ears and open eyes; this was the first time I’d participated in a guided, focused conversation about assessment.


Though not familiar with types of assessment, I am familiar with the concepts of grit and growth and fixed mindsets, and I started to make the connections. Summative assessment feeds into and reinforces our society’s problem with the fixed mindset – the idea that we are born with a certain capacity to learn or intelligence in different, specified areas and that these capacities are unchanging or fixed throughout our lives. In other words, both summative assessment and the fixed mindset deliver strong, final, and often times damaging messages to students about what they know and who they are, academically speaking. I.e., you are a B student in Math; you are a failure at History; you suck at English. Even when these methods of feedback are positive, communicating As and intelligence, they create boundaries and pigeonhole individuals in ways that are unhelpful to student development and growth, to one’s sense of potential and self, and to the practice of teaching and learning.


Praise and the whole spectrum of feedback are powerful in today’s world. Not just in the classroom, but in every aspect of our lives – the office, the home and family life, one’s social circles. We are assessed daily by ourselves and by those around us, and often times we become dependent on external validation to know that we are doing a good job, or to learn that we are screwing up royally. So before I fully develop an assessment strategy for the group of students I’ll be working with over the semester, I want to think more deeply about my own rocky relationship with what I now can name summative assessment, its friend, praise, and how they’ve worked together to my disadvantage over the years. And, how I’ve gradually learned to grapple with them.


Through eighth grade, school was smooth sailing for me. There was no such thing as academic hurdle. Feeling good about my social life could be hard, but in the classroom I was queen.I understood academic material quickly, I came from a smart family, and I was just born with it, right? Interestingly, I saw this attribute as a value. My intelligence made me somehow better, I believed. And yet, it was accidental, inherited, just the way I was. I didn’t ask for praise, but I got used to receiving it. And my academic performance and success became a significant part of my sense of self.


High school was a new league. I had transitioned from an inner city public middle school to an elite college preparatory school. In middle school, I didn’t need to know what studying was and I certainly never did it. Getting A+s meant doing all of my homework and paying attention in class. But high school was something else. We were asked to demonstrate higher levels of learning, understanding, analyzing, synthesizing. By the end of freshman year, I had surely been trampled by every one of Bloom’s taxonomies. The work and assignments our instructors gave us required thinking, outlining, memorizing, and real struggle with ideas. I was absolutely capable, but something kept me from putting in the effort. I had always implicitly understood my intelligence to mean that effort wasn’t needed. I always (until the young age of 13) just got it.


What do you know that as I progressed through my high school years, the work got harder and my grades grew worse. I still cared, but I wouldn’t change my method of doing school. I protested by sticking to my old way. That old way equated to doing the assignments, being active and engaged in class, but not working my brain beyond what was asked of me, not struggling for understanding at every turn. I distinctly remember my first C grade on a midterm. It was my freshman spring Biology class, and I just never spent any time with the text. I got the C, and I broke down. That C, that summative C, told me everything I needed to know about who I was as a person. And yet it couldn’t, because I was smart. But it did. That C belonged to me, and I never really accepted it. I kicked my locker in anger. I made a scene. And then I never looked back. It was too painful to examine the test, to try to understand or get better, to face my failure. I just threw it away and moved on. I wasn’t good at science and I wasn’t going to be a scientist anyway. What about math? I loved math. And then I got a C in math, an advanced math class in which I was the only girl. I’d given up because I thought I couldn’t do it and I thought I couldn’t do it because I didn’t try. I didn’t struggle. I went onto get some Ds my senior year. I’d given up. I’d decided that if I couldn’t be the best then I wasn’t going to compete. So I rebelled against summative assessment, or at least that’s what I thought I was doing. But in fact, I was allowing the grades, these letters, to dictate my intelligence and thus my effort. I wouldn’t play the game that I couldn’t win at, and I had yet to realize that I could win, but more importantly that learning isn’t about winning or grades or innate ability – it’s about struggle, growth, change, evolution.


When I got to college, I started fresh and I did well, summatively and otherwise.  But I didn’t get a whole lot better at failure and not letting it define me. I became an Economics major because I was drawn to the quantitative social sciences, and the way in which girls just didn’t become Econ majors at my small liberal arts college. And yet, as I reached the upper level classes, I never quite let myself struggle and get better. I didn’t believe I could do it, and I was afraid to try. I decided that the subject didn’t come that naturally to me and that I just wasn’t brilliant at it like some of my classmates were. Today, I look back and see that my classmates were working harder at it and so they learned more and thus performed better.


It was only once I reached the real, work world that I truly began to see myself and my successes and failures as complex and malleable. In each new challenge I take on as a post-college adult, I learn to fail every day and feel more and more ok about it. After all, if I weren’t in a position to fail, I wouldn’t be putting myself out there, and I wouldn’t be in a very interesting position at all. Further, I wouldn’t be setting the best example for the students I work with and their own struggles with how they perceive themselves and their abilities.


I see the students I work with and the grit and perseverance and comfort with struggle and failure many of them have developed in order to keep going when so much has gone wrong in their lives thus far. The students who left high school because they had been told, and in turn believed, that they weren’t smart enough or good enough or worth enough. The students who endure jobs where their employers treat them with dignity or respect, and don’t pay them enough to cover their bills or feed their kids. And still, they think enough of themselves and their futures and their potential and their minds to come to school each day and become better. And to think I thought I shouldn’t struggle and overcome myself.

But I keep going and learning, and the students do too. And I hope we can continue to inspire each other to grow our minds and seize our potentials.


  1. Hi Rachel, This is a fabulous post–so much from the heart, so much empathy for your students. I very much appreciate this insight: “It was only once I reached the real, work world that I truly began to see myself and my successes and failures as complex and malleable.” The tragedy of our world is school in success is so deeply tied to school in the life beyond school that, for many, there is no “real, work world” in which they can see how faulty and false are those “summative” feedbacks that somehow collectively become one’s self and identity.

    I’m re-reading Anya Kamanetz’s The Test now which not only historicizes our testing mania and all the counter-testing evidence we have had for decades and ignored. But it also gives us concrete ways to fight back, as parents and as teachers and as students and as workers. Regaining confidence is key. “Not smart enough” is a terrible way to go through the world.

    Thanks for participating in all the ways you do in fighting back against what Guinier is calling “the tyranny of the meritocracy.” Including the “smart meritocracy” . . .

  2. Cathy,

    Thanks for your kind and thoughtful comments! Yes, it is tragic and interesting how one’s self and identity in school can be so tied to one’s identity and sense of his or her own potential in the work world.

    Come to think of it, I actually think that a lot my students’ positive sense of self comes from work outside of school since they have been in the workforce and doing parenting work for quite a few years and have separated themselves from academia. In some sense, this separation probably allows them a kind of confidence they wouldn’t have had they stayed, and failed, in school.

    Today was our program’s first day of class, and it was heartening, encouraging, moving, exciting to hear students talk about how proud they were of themselves and how many of them knew they could tackle earning their high school equivalencies since they had already tackled raising three children, caring for their elderly parents, etc etc

    I haven’t read The Test… will have to get it.

  3. Hi, Rachel. I was touched and inspired by your post. Your remarks about embracing failure spoke to me on many levels. It’s a hard lesson to learn and an even harder one to teach, but essential. The trope I sometimes use in my classes has to do with learning to ski (but, of course, pretty much any example will do). Once I gained a level of competency, I judged my day’s performance on how many times I fell. It became something of a fetish: days when I fell were failures; those when I did not were triumphs. Just a matter of keeping score. One winter I began to ski regularly with a friend’s father. He was then about the age I am now, and seemed to my younger self to be ancient of days. He was a good skier, however, certainly better than I. Yet, he always fell at least once during the day, sometimes quite spectacularly. One evening over drinks I asked him about that proclivity, wondering if he wasn’t afraid he’d hurt himself. He smiled and said he had been wondering when I would ask that question. You never fall, he said, and that’s why you haven’t gotten much better in all the time we’ve skied together. You never carve your turns and you never work the edges. You can’t get better if you’re afraid to fall. When I said I wasn’t afraid to fall, I just didn’t want to. He laughed and said, “same thing”. “How,” he asked, “can i teach you anything if your only interest is staying vertical.” In short, if my goal was summative — a good score at the end of the day — I had closed myself off to the formative. I’ve tried to live that lesson, teaching failure as a form of willed growth. It requires a mutuality of practice: students who are willing to play over their heads, and teachers who nurture failure as the precursor of the next success, and of course, the next failure. At CUNY, where many of our students are all too familiar with failure and its costs, that lesson is counter-intuitive but absolutely critical. Complaceny is the only failure we should fear. Thanks again, Rachel.

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