Reflective Practice

Pregnancy and Pedagogy: What “Non-Stress Tests” Taught Me About Assessing Our Students

By Alicia Andrzejewski

I was hooked up to a bed in a hospital robe, monitor on my finger, and a blood pressure cuff on my arm going off every 15 minutes. I watched two and a half hours pass on the clock on the wall in front of me. The walls were green. My phone got no service. No one seemed to understand why I was crying. I kept asking, “Is what you see concerning? Is what you see bad?”

“No, it’s just not what we want to see.”

—from my notes on pregnancy, April 20th

I am a good student; most of us who make a career in academia are. I have always known how to prepare for classroom assessment. Because I attended a strict, private school in England growing up, I knew how to draw up “revision timetables” and begin studying months in advance, color coding notes and setting up intermittent reward systems. When my sister and I played school as children, I always wanted to be the teacher, grading her work and putting stickers at the top. As I became a college professor, I had faith that all students, if they worked hard enough and made use of all of the resources available to them, would succeed in my class.

My belief that students’ ability to succeed in academia is based on their efforts alone changed significantly after a high-risk pregnancy, when I was subjected to testing twice a week for much of my third trimester. These tests revealed the ways in which my unborn child compared to, or differed from, the norm, and if she failed these tests additional regulation was required. This process was not a conversation, as is often the case with assessment in the classroom, despite the known failures of these assessment practices. The tests in pregnancy consisted of growth scans, in which a machine measured my baby’s body parts, as well as the “non-stress test,” a test that decides whether or not a baby is in distress by measuring their heart rate. The non-stress test gets its name from the more violent test it replaced, the stress test, one in which women were put under bodily stress—induced contractions—in order to measure the baby’s response. Eventually, physicians figured out these methods actually induced labor and replaced the stress test with the non-stress test. At the time, I was told by ultrasound technicians that growth scans estimating a baby’s weight could be off by two pounds, and after minimal research, I discovered that both tests are often inaccurate, if not totally ineffective, in indicating whether or not a baby is in distress.

Ever since experiencing these tests, I cannot help but notice parallels in the ways students are assessed and accommodated (or not) at the university level. Academic testing, writing exams and papers, is a bodily experience, and we assume all bodies will be able to fit the criteria and standards we have set. Despite the known failures of the “non-stress test,” the stakes were high for me-—just as they are for our students. I was continually told these tests were necessary despite their failures, what was best for my baby and I, and that, as a responsible mom-to-be, I was required to show up and take them. Similarly, when students gave me accommodation paperwork (more often than not they apologized when doing so), I always assured them—like the nurses, doctors, and authority figures that surrounded me—that everything would be fine; that if they worked hard enough to succeed, they would. But no matter how kind or supportive college instructors or physicians are, to use my husband’s words after Evelyn almost failed a second “non-stress test,” “sometimes these tests are bullshit.” Some assessment practices, especially high-stakes testing, fail students, no matter the amount of effort they are able to put in.

So, what can we, college instructors, do about it? How are we holding ourselves responsible for how assessment practices fail, let alone the physical and mental impact these forms of assessment have on our students? The stakes are high for our students, just as they were for me and my baby. Assessment matters, to where our students end up academically and professionally; to their mental and emotional health; and to how they interpret and feel about their own capabilities. Like physicians, educators do work to revise the ways in which we assess students, on individual, departmental, and national levels. But, still, when I talk to my writing students about placement tests, the common core, the SAT, all of the standardized tests who judge who they are as students and writers, we quickly come to the conclusion that these tests fail to say much about their capabilities, abilities, voices, unique and individual skills as writers, for a variety of reasons. There is no way—just as those monitors that Evelyn kept kicking off my belly, and the criteria made up for “most babies” that she simply didn’t meet—standardized tests and criteria won’t leave some students behind.


To start, college instructors can build flexibility into their assignments: Flexibility in revising and adapting assessment tools to student needs; in the timeframes we give students to complete work; and in how we think about, and talk to students about, what grades mean. In all cases, this flexibility comes in response to listening to our students, even involving them in assignment and rubric design (For more on “co-authoring” in the classroom, see Danica Savonick’s “Community Guidelines: Fostering Inclusive Discussions of Difference and Christina Katopodis’s “Structuring Equality in my American Literature Survey Course.”) If there’s one thing I felt in all hospital assessment settings, it’s that I wasn’t being heard when I wanted to have a conversation about how these tests were inaccurate, or unfair, or stressful.

In my own classroom, I start each class-period with low-stakes reading quizzes, for example. The questions are open-ended, but students know they need to provide specific and concrete details from the readings to pass. I tell them, “Come in ready to write about the most memorable moments from the readings, offering specific details, choosing whichever questions you feel most comfortable answering.” If the student did not have a chance to complete the reading, I offer an alternative prompt that speaks to what was discussed last class. The pedagogical goal of these quizzes is to see how well students know course material, but students cannot demonstrate they know everything covered in the reading or past lectures on one assignment—why not let them discuss what most interested or intrigued them?


Another way to offer flexibility and accommodate students has to do with time. I was not afforded this luxury by the hospital—Evelyn and I could stay hooked up to the monitor for an hour, maximum, before being admitted to triage. Had we be given more time, she would’ve eventually passed. In each of my college classrooms, I come in fifteen minutes before class starts and allow students to start their reading quizzes early if they wish. For high stakes assignments, I have language in my syllabus inspired by a syllabus I received from GC English professor Feisal Mohamed:

You may have exactly one extension for the final paper, for any reason you wish. And you may set any date you wish up until the day before final grades are due (I will let you know this date)—but you must stick to the date you set.  

For me, the pedagogical goal of any assignment is to determine if the students are reading, meeting the course objectives, and how much they comprehend the material—not how fast they can read and respond to quiz questions, or churn out a final paper. I find that this extra time helps a wide range of students, including English language learners; students with test anxiety; students who struggle to gain access to the computers and space necessary to complete these final, high-stakes assignments (see Maura A. Smale’s research); and students who have learning disabilities that require more time to comprehend questions and formulate answers.


Most importantly, when we assess people, we need to acknowledge that we are in a position of power, and should be transparent about the purpose of the assessment and our goals. I struggled, when pregnant with Evelyn, to get a doctor to have a transparent conversation with me about the tests I was forced to undergo. I now feel an even greater responsibility to do what I can to create assessment practices and spaces that are not only conducive to my students’ success and that take into account the many ways in which assessment tools fail—but also that are crafted from a place of empathy. I know what it felt like in my body to fail ineffective tests that said little about my body or my baby. A little empathy and flexibility would’ve gone a long way for Evelyn and me. The same holds true for our students: keeping in mind what each assessment tool is meant to measure, and how any assignment might be adapted to measure this skill or area of knowledge more flexibly and empathetically for each student, would make material differences in the lives of our students and their experiences with the academy.


1 Comment

  1. Great content! This is exactly the sort of thing I was looking for. Thanks for your help

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