High Scores

When I log into my school board email system I am presented with a news feed that is received by all the teachers in the district.  Usually there are short stories about the accomplishments of different students/teachers in the board.  A few weeks ago I saw a “news release” that told about two students in our board who graduated high school this year with an average of 100% (based on their best 6 grade 12 courses).

100%?!?!

What kind of assessments are these students exposed to such that they are able to score 100% on EVERYTHING?!

I can see how it may be possible for a student to demonstrate all of the knowledge requirements in a course, but as teachers we are responsible for far more than knowledge-based assessments.  I can only assume that if a student can finish with 100% in all her courses, then there has definitely been an over-emphasis on traditional tests and projects.  This is disappointing to me.

As teachers in the 21st century we need to create engaging learning environments where students are challenged to be critical and creative thinkers.  We need to develop assignments that encourage students to be resourceful and self-directed.  We need to provide opportunity for students to have meaningful collaboration and teamwork.  And we need to be aware that we are preparing our students for a world where the problems that need to be solved don’t fit on an 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper, nor will they be solved with “test taking skills.”

Over the past few years, I have been trying to make the following changes to my classroom:

  1. Students learn from each other as much as possible.  Nurturing a classroom community is very important.
  2. Developing assignments that absolutely cannot be completed by copy/paste, memorization or “cramming.”
  3. Creating some projects that are broad in scope to allow students to “make it their own” in meaningful ways.

Personally, I think that the tradition of publishing the names of the students who have achieved the highest overall average in the board is an obsolete practice.  It comes from an era in which marks were emphasized above all else and the marks were based on old-school assessment practices like traditional tests, quizzes and homework checks.

In today’s fast-paced, hyper-connected world, achieving high marks in high school will only be one predictor of future success – and not the best one by far!  Instead, look for students who are intrinsically motivated, who are creative thinkers, who are self-directed learners, and who are able to build and maintain personal learning networks.  These are now (and have always been) better indicators of future success than a student’s graduating average.

Image Credit:  clspeace

Should Tests Have Time Limits?

I am not opposed to traditional tests as a means to assess student learning.  In fact, I think that tests play an important role as an assessment tool in my Science classes.  There are many times when I need to know for certain that a student has grasped a concept, and that they can communicate their understanding in their own words.  I also find tests are useful to see how well my students’ problem solving skills are developing.  For these reasons, I think it is valid to have students sit quietly, reflect independently, and communicate their understanding on paper.  Of course, if testing is a teacher’s only major approach for gathering information about their students, then they are not likely to get a complete picture of what a student knows and can do.

At school today I was administering the Grade 9 Mathematics EQAO test.  This is a standardized test for all grade 9 students in the province of Ontario.  The students were given 50 minutes to complete the first booklet of questions, a 10 minute break, and then 50 minutes to complete a second booklet.  It was clear that many of the students in my room were frustrated by the timelines and wished they could have been given more time.  Alas, a standardized test obviously requires that all students receive the same test, and are provided the same amount of time.

This post is not about standardized testing (although, for the record, I am not a fan of them.)  Instead, I wanted to question the importance of having time limits on tests at all.

Most of the tests that we give our students have time constraints.  Generally, this is the model that we all experienced when we were in school, so it seems like the natural thing to do.  Besides, we are still subject to external limitations – Each class period has a set length, so you cannot very well deliver tests that have an unlimited amount of time.

Yet, a test with a time limit is not really a test of what a student knows or what they can do, but how quickly they can do it.  This is especially challenging in my senior Physics courses because a good part of what I teach is problem solving.  Seventy percent of any test that I give to my students will ask students to solve problems.  Although there is usually one or maybe two ways to solve a given problem, it is not immediately clear to students how to determine the answer just by looking at the question.

How can I reasonably assess a student’s ability to problem solve when there is a time limit?  How can I know that the student was not 5 minutes away from “getting it” when the bell rang?  To me, it is critically important that a teacher can discern whether a student ran out of time, ran out of motivation, or ran out of knowledge/skill.

For a while now, I have been letting my students use as much time as they need to complete a test.  If possible, I try to plan tests for the period before lunch or for the last period of the day so that students may take extra time if they need it.  By eliminating the possibility that a student ran out of time, I can be certain that the student’s overall achievement on the test will more closely reflect their actual level of knowledge/skill.

I often hear other teachers say that we need to develop our students’ “test taking skills,” and I’m not really sure what they mean by that.  Does it mean helping students deal with the anxiety of tests?  Does it mean helping students to budget their time on a test?  Does it mean helping students complete multiple choice questions by a process of educated guesses?  The fact is that outside of the education system, no one is required to write formal sit-down exams!  Real life “tests” are so much more complex than the ones we give in school because they deal with dynamic problems, they involve diverse people, and they make use of every accessible resource.

Let’s try to replace phrases like,”you have 5 minutes left,” with ones like, “keep trying until you feel you have done all you can do!”

Image Credit:  rileyroxx