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Exams and the teachers who hate them (me!)

Posted by phourigan on June 7, 2010

I proctored a Spanish I exam this morning (one peril of my no-set-schedule job is that I’m always “free” to cover classes) and now I’m sitting in a mandatory study session for tomorrow’s 7th grader math exam, so of course I’m thinking about exams and forms of assessment.

We can talk all we want about project-based learning and inquiry, alternative assessment and multiple learning styles, but when it comes down to it the way we really find out whether or not students know our material is to have them sit down at a cleared desk, get a pencil and write down some answers.  This seems like a lost opportunity to step back and think about what we’re really hoping our students learn from their experience.

The Spanish exam I sat through was in two parts: a listening section and a written section.  The listening section was three ninety second recordings that asked questions or made statements and the students were supposed to circle the correct sentiment or answer a question or whatever.  What struck me first when I agreed to proctor this exam is how little the foreign language exam had changed since I was a middle school student over twenty-five years ago.  Granted I was using iTunes to read a CD, but how is this fundamentally different from listening to an audio tape?  For all I know, these voices I was hearing were recorded a hundred years ago and ported across various media formats by generations of language teachers.

I don’t want to be overly critical (okay, yes I do), but the fact that I, someone who never took Spanish, was qualified to deliver the instrument that would measure what an eighth grade student absorbed over the course of the year makes me think we can be doing something different.  With the technology available, it would be great to be able to capture student voices or better yet to actually have them communicate with other students in Spanish.  After all, isn’t that what they’re learning Spanish for?

If two students sat down and had a conversation, either they speak and understand each other very well, or they struggle through the conversation.  If one does well and the other does not, it should be obvious (to a trained observer – ie. a Spanish instructor) that one student is correcting, clarifying or doing the best with what he’s being given.

Now we get to the heart of the issue: assessment.  With our current model (and it’s not just Spanish here, it’s everything), I can take an answer key and score these Spanish exams.  To be fair, there was an essay section that I would certainly not be able to assess, but the rest of the exam I wouldn’t have trouble with (mostly multiple choice and fill in the blank).  It’s very easy to grade a test like this and it takes very little work on my part.  Contrast this with my alternate universe assessment and now I have to spend hours of time listening to students speaking to each other and trying to equate what I’m hearing with mastery of the subject matter.  It’s almost a no-brainer.

But let’s allow 21st Century tools to come into play.  Who says the exam has to take place at 9:20 in room E-32?  Who says it has to happen on the third-to-last day of the year?  Let’s suppose that I instead mete out the assignment a couple of weeks ahead of time and assess, say, three pairs of students a week for three weeks?  They can have their conversation wherever and whenever they want, but they have to submit their recorded conversation (and perhaps even a written transcript – that would be interesting) to the instructor on time.

Quick aside – I just heard a student say to a classmate, “I only need to get a 40 on this exam to get an A- for the year,” followed by, “I only need to get a one percent on this exam to get high honors for the year.”  At least he can do the math, but is this what we’re aiming for?  Students who know how little they need to do in order to achieve our goals for them?

I believe that we need to teach students to think differently.  I also believe that we need to challenge ourselves to think differently.  We need school administrations who will embrace and even reward teachers who generate alternative assessments rather than scare teachers into what is safe and familiar.  We’re all so afraid that our risks may fail, but think back to that student who knows he only needs a 40 for his A-.  Is that the measure of a successful exam?


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