“Clear off your desks. Make sure your phones are on silent.”
A shuffle of noise fills the classroom, and several students file in line to sharpen their pencils.
I stand there with a hopeful smile on my face, clutching the stack of papers to my chest.
“Alrighty, guys. Guess what time it is!”
They give each other knowing looks. Some crack their knuckles in anticipation.
Now, the noise to follow my announcement is the part of the story everyone knows. No one would be confused if I included “they groaned” or “they complained.” Some of you might’ve added, “they passed out in horror.”
But as I teach high school English and earn my master’s in Literacy at the same time, I struggle to maintain a consistent perspective on assessments. I assign essays, and I write essays. I hand out grades, and I receive grades, sometimes all within the same day.
So I empathize with a Western culture that loathes multiple-choice scantrons. I also understand a benevolent, I-need-to-make-sure-you-succeed mindset. End-of-unit assessments sometimes look like pen and paper; other times, they look like service projects. I get that there is often creativity available in class assessments.
Yet never in my wildest dreams would I have asked for them.
A Confusing Psalmist
“Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. Point out anything in me that offends you, and lead me along the path of everlasting life,” (Psalm 139: 23-24 NLT).
Yes, we read that correctly; the psalmist says to God, “test me.” And it’s not the only place, either. Psalm 26:2 cries, “Test me, Lord, and try me, examine my heart and my mind,” (NIV).
I read this and want to laugh out loud. I mean, how ridiculous would it be if a student approached me during lunch, eyes filled with eagerness. “Test me, Ms. Weisinger. Please. Can I please take an exam on this material?”
I would be so concerned I’d call her parents that afternoon.
In teaching, we break up learning evaluations into two categories: formative and summative assessments. Formative assessments are your everyday bell ringers, tickets-out-the-door, verbal participation, etc. This helps me know where the students are daily. Summative assessments are those group projects, end-of-the-unit tests, in-class essays. Both are valuable, both analyze students’ mastery, and both are evident in Scripture.
When I look at Abraham’s test in sacrificing Isaac, the words ‘big,’ ‘life-changing decision,’ and ‘large consequences at stake’ come to mind. Think David and Goliath. Think Jesus and the cross. These are your summative tests, the end-of-unit exams.
The Israelites waiting on manna in the desert for forty years? Or Jacob working 14 years for Rachel? Those are formative assessments- your daily assignments to reveal incremental progress.
(Disclaimer: I am not confident this is the verbiage the Lord uses, as English might not be the language He writes His lesson plans in.)
When the Learning Happens
In my so-far-young life, I’ve personally experienced plenty of summative tests, though none of them have been as popcorn-worthy as Abraham and Isaac’s. I’ve aced ones I prepared for. I’ve flat-out failed ones I ignored. There have even been a few I’ve taken confidently until I’ve received feedback that I didn’t perform anywhere close to the standard held to me. (Kind of like that 10th-grade chemistry final.)
As a teacher, very rarely do I grade an in-class paper and circle a number at the top in surprise. If I am staying up-to-date with my students throughout the week, making instructional changes for their benefit, I know what they don’t understand.
The Lord doesn’t need our summative tests to know how we’re doing. Yes, He’s all-powerful and all-knowing and freakishly good at reading our minds. So then He’s not surprised by our final grades because our formative assessments have been evidence enough of our learning. He’s not surprised when we declare bankruptcy and fail to trust Him with each paycheck ahead of time. He’s not confused by our burnout when we fail to honor the Sabbath and soak in His presence each morning.
For me, these formative tests look like, “Am I going to partake in this slander?” “Am I going to put this coworker’s need above my own?” “Am I going to love this body today because you made it fearfully and wonderfully?” We are presented with these tests repeatedly because He wants us to learn and He wants us to ace the final.
Summative exams stress students out more than formative ones. This is understandable when the jeopardy games are over and the multiple-choice test influences 20% of your final grade. But I wish my students could understand the real learning doesn’t happen the night before the final. It happens every day in class.
“Test me, Lord.”
Parents and researchers know that the more relatable and interesting the content is, the more engaged the student will be. I teach high school English. Macbeth, no matter how creatively I spin it, is not something all students will gravitate towards. Those who take an interest will lean closer in class discussions, and those who do not will have to force themselves to stay awake.
We can’t force our interest in God any more than I can force feta cheese onto a vegan. We can’t make ourselves want tests if our hearts aren’t interested in Him. He calls for us and fights for us, but it is I who learns to desire daughtership more than comfort. When I feel like I have to study, that’s when I know I’m apathetic about the content. It’s in those moments and/or seasons when I need to look at the cross and remember how, despite the burden my sin has caused Him, He has loved me like I never walked away.
This is freeing when we pair it with the fact that most of our learning is informal! We have the teacher of all teachers. He isn’t trying to trick us or shame us. He’s knowledgeable in His subject area, and He’s on standby for each question. He operates in grace, not in a school district, and He lets us retake a test over and over and over again- even if it takes years to understand it.
“Test me, Lord.” Not because I want a higher GPA. Rather because I desire You over my idleness, and I trust your pedagogy more than my circumstances. These tests don’t have to be pop quizzes worth 50% of my life’s decisions. I just need to pay attention to the feedback You give each day.
Featured Image by Rachel Lynette