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Thursday, January 5, 2012

Mid-term Exams: time to leave them behind

It's that time of year again already.  The school year is just about half way over and the semester is drawing to a close. That means mid-term examinations are on the way.  Some recent comments from my colleagues have me thinking about them a bit more than usual, and, as a result, I have some questions about the whole mid-term concept.

Why do we have mid-term exams? Because that's what we do half-way through the year.  Not a satisfying answer, is it? The idea of inertia is the worst possible reason for doing anything, in school and in life.  This isn't overtly true in my department, but, if I'm being honest, it is an underlying reason, because doing something new means doing work, and change is hard for many teachers to embrace...So that aside, what are some of the other reasons given for having mid-term exams?

Because we need to see what the students have learned so far. Ah, ok, that I can work with.  We are giving these tests to check up on the learning that has gone on in the classroom thus far.  Exams are there to see what the students know.  And when they don't know the material, do we go back and re-teach it? Cycle around to ensure that the content is embedded in the memory banks and skills are fully mastered? I'll go out on a limb and say no.  I'd also go further out on a limb and say that most teachers don't take any data from the exam at all, because I need the exams to be easy to grade, says a colleague. (Do you hear sawing? This limb is vibrating...)  Hence, multiple choice has ruled the day in my, and most, departments. And even though this style of test lends itself to statistical analysis, we don't take the time to go back over the results to see what, if any, patterns exist in the student's knowledge. Thus rendering the exams useless as a re-teaching tool. And such exams only check content knowledge, not skill mastery, so they only take care of half of the teaching puzzle.

To be fair, there is no time built into the exam time-frame for teachers to make a thoughtful analysis of whatever data they've accumulated, reflect upon it, and then make necessary adjustments. We have two exams a day for four days, with a make up period for students who missed it.  Exams then have to be graded and overall marks calculated and commented on simultaneously with returning to the classroom and continuing on with instruction.  We are changing this daily schedule somewhat this year, which should facilitate faster grading in some ways, but the nearly instant return to instruction combined with a seemingly endless list of standards to cover means that re-teaching is at best a momentary activity, and at worst, not even thought about. So, the exams don't serve the purpose of uncovering what students have missed thus far very well.

Because we need to give them the experience of taking a cumulative exam so they get prepared for college.  You mean we need to do this in every class, for every student, two times a year for four years?  In my school, that means a graduating senior would have taken over 50 summative examinations during his or her high school career, all to make ready for that first final exam in college? Seems like overkill.  Though to hear it from my former students who are now home from college: "Those exams were the hardest I've ever taken," says one. "Nothing in high school prepared me for that," says another.  So something isn't connecting. I'm going to say it is format, for no returning student has ever said their collegiate exams in the social sciences included multiple choice.  My undergraduate experience didn't include those either. Exams were essay and short answer based, and hit on higher order thinking skills, not regurgitation of material. (The root of my beef with the College Board's curriculum--spend the whole year prepping for an exam the likes of which doesn't exist at the level the course purports to recreate.) As a result, I don't think we are actually preparing students to articulate their understanding of material in ways that resonate with the collegiate level.  In 50+ tries. Over 4 years. So mid-term exams don't serve that purpose well either.

Because assessment of student performance will be part of teacher evaluation, says the deal cut by my state in order to get Race to the Top money. So the exams are for the teachers, and the determination of the quality of their performance. Which means that we need to design exams (mid-term and finals) that contain common standards of teaching excellence, that can be measured, quantified, and compiled, so they can be useful in conversations with teachers about their practice, and that can promote conversations between teachers and supervisors about how they need to improve. And they must be based around the content and skills of the course curriculum that is taught. Uh huh.

Leaving aside questions of who will design such assessments (ah, ah, ah, bureaucrats! Sorry, had to sneeze...) the need for quantifiable data points will not relieve the pressures of assessing students through multiple choice-style exams. So we run the risk of being stuck with a practice and a format that doesn't lend itself either to re-teaching or to collegiate preparation, while turning teacher evaluation into a statistical exercise.

If we must give mid-term examinations, it is time to abandon the old way of doing them. I believe we need to articulate the standards of course content, grade-level skill, and teaching practice, then have students submit work in a portfolio comprised of both work done earlier in the term and in a timed writing (or other activity that doesn't involve scantron) at the end of the term. We can use the technology we have not only to have students store their material digitally, but also to design a systematized way of reviewing the material. Instead of a multiple choice exam, let's have the students discuss their work thus far with the all the teachers of the subject in the department, who then ask questions designed to delve into the students' knowledge of the content and to reveal their mastery of skills. (This doesn't have to be face-to-face (though it could be through a dissertation style defense format); again, technology can make this easier, either through video recordings, emailed responses, or google form completion to name a few methods) Regardless, the content mastery needs to become secondary to the mastery of the skills. 

Then, based on the student's responses, the timed writing and the portfolio, the teachers can know what skills to cycle back to in the second half of the course, and what content to reiterate.  The portfolios and the rest can then serve as the primary discussion points for the discussions of teacher performance, and actual student work, not percentages and statistical analysis can stand as testimony to the teacher's success or struggles in the classroom. Yes, time will be needed for this to happen, but it would be worthwhile time spent if it actually helped to prepare students for the collegiate environment (if that is in fact the goal of high school...), and reveal what is working and what is not working within each teacher's classrooms. And mid-terms would stop being meaningless examinations and become meaningful assessments...

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