Tuesday, January 24, 2012

time for a new exam

It's exam week at my school, and things look different this year.  Because our province's teachers are in a contract dispute with the government, we have withheld some supervision duties, provincial exam marking, and meeting with administration among other low-key job actions.  This year is also the first without the gamut of Grade 12 provincial exams that were mandatory from the 1980s until about 5 years ago, and then optional up to this year.  That left only 5 "checkpoint" provincial exams for students to write: English, Science, Math 10, Socials 11, and English 12.  The result?  Our traditional exam week -- where students only attend for exams and teachers have a chance to mark and get caught up in planning, prep, and pro-d promises -- was bound to change.  Our school board office came up with a plan for the week that principals were compelled to implement; eventually the word trickled down to teachers about what was to happen.  It feels like the heady days before email and smartphones, when the pace of communication was approximately the pace of someone walking down the hallway towards your classroom.  Day 1 & 2 were extended blocks of regular classes (that ended the previous week), teachers could administer own course exams if they wish, otherwise they were supposed to supervise students who had already finished the course.  The leftover bits, plus Day 3 & 4, was to be "I" time, with the I standing for incomplete, I think, or maybe in-progress?  Interesting? Independent? Innovative?  Indolent?  Inert?  Something starting with "I" anyways.  The idea is that students could get caught up on whatever they missed in the course (which ended a week earlier), at the teacher's discretion.  This is a strange assessment practice, and one that does not assist students in becoming responsible young adults who own their learning.

That's the context.  Despite my misgivings about the quality of this plan and my skepticism about motives (I can't turn those taps off, sorry), I quite enjoy the challenge of finding order in the chaos and I've got big plans for this week.  The part I want to write about here, and the part that will suck most of my school-time this week, is a new exam.  For the last few years I've been using the same Social Studies 10 exam (with some edits) that Ian Leitch and I made in 2005.  150 multiple choice questions, 2 short essay questions, and a diagram to complete.  This, in turn, was based on old exams and exam banks that go back to the distant past.  Many of the questions came with the 2001 edition of the "Horizons" textbook, some were legacy items from the days of Norm Booth, Keith Gordon, Garvin Moles and other Social Studies legends.  There is still a place for a MC test in my course designs, but these are increasingly becoming formative checks for understanding (part of what I call Verifications).  I'm becoming less enamoured with the way students slog through MC, especially when there are more than 40 questions, or when all the student sees are pages of text.

One of my Socials teacher friends Rob had a vision for a new kind of exam, something different from the "evil bubblesheet" as he put it.  The two of us had worked a small bit for Pearson Education a couple of years ago, developing study guides for a SS11 textbook.  We were excited to use "benchmarks of historical thinking" and activities that focused on critical inquiry with students to develop understanding and insight into broad focus questions that were important to the curriculum.  Unpacking knowledge, organizing content by theme, interpreting evidence, responding to quotes or prompts, comparing and synthesizing the big ideas and events from the course, and making connections between the curriculum and the identity of the student and his/her personal communities.  Why not make an exam like that?  Being the super teachers that we are, steeped in all things Social Studies, we put this together in a couple of days, one of which was "sprung for" by our respective principals.  Now we get to see how the students do.

The new exam focuses on fewer direct learning outcomes and requires a higher level of engagement with the core problem-solving skills that appear in the IRP (curriculum guide).  We are very interested to see what the students know, what they come out of the course able to do (not so much how much stuff they can remember).  This puts some balance to the process vs product dilemma embedded in assessment.  We wanted to move from summative to performative... can students make connections with the ideas & events that shaped Canada in the 1800s?  Can they recognize and interpret iconic images and establish the significance of separate events in the overall story of Canada?  Can they map it?  Can they move freely between detailed content, accurate contexts, overall themes, source analysis, cause & consequence?  Can they rank ideas as to their impact?  Can they take position on a historical controversy and defend it?  There is nothing "new" on the exam, it falls back on the compelling narratives we've used all year to anchor our teaching and devise student activities.  The exam ended up as a 3-page double sided 11"x17" entity (one page is the cover/instructions), looking a lot like the unit study guides we built for Pearson.  The prompts launch students into formal and informal writing that moves quickly from unpacking the facts though interpreting evidence to critical inquiry.  It will be hard work, but nothing the students are unfamiliar with.  And, it is a final exam so it gives us a chance to assess pass or fail for students who have lingered around the "no meeting expectations" zone.  Rob's students wrote it yesterday, mine write today.  Kind of funny; I've been at this for 15 years now and I can't remember ever being this excited by an exam!

Update: 1:30 pm ...very cool to see how the first and now second group is handling this assessment.  It's like they're working on a jigsaw puzzle, some starting at the end, some jumping back and forth between sections as one thing puts another into their mind.  Some are trying to cram everything they know into an appropriate cubby (which requires it's own problem-solving... "what am I being asked here?").  Others are methodically working on the sections that fit with their way of thinking and ignoring the rest for now.  A couple of freak-outs and one attempted scam but with 38 students writing that's not too bad.  It seemed different from other exams where the students simply ran down the path, grabbing as many MC questions as they could along the way.  The comments I had from my first class suggests that the exam was trying to get them to tell their version of the story of Canada.  Justin, the kid with the 200-yr-old spoon, said "this is great, I get to show what I actually learned."  That's just great with me, too -- and pretty much the reason I became a Socials teacher.  What they leave on the table is more than just a snapshot, it is a performance piece that shows what skills, knowledge, and insight they've refined over the last 5 months in my class. I'm probably making too much of this, but it was a nice change.


Jon Pol-itics said...

Looks great--certainly an improvement. I wonder, though--why have a final exam at all?

Thielmann said...

good question Jon. I structure assessment in three ways, with the belief that each kind is important for both student expression of learning and teacher evaluation of progress towards learning outcomes and growth of the person.

1. about a third for formative work or verification of ILOs, the slow, deliberate problem-solving we do every day in class to address key content from the PLOs; some student self-assessment and alternative (multi-modal) approaches to demonstrating learning encouraged.

2. about a third for project-based learning (which in SS10 is mostly the "New Home" and "Heritage Connections" projects that exploits key themes from the PLOs; some student self-assessment and project control/deisgn sits with students

3. about a third for summative/performative assessments that focus on critical thinking about key topics from the PLOs - the prep part involves student self-assessment, the performance part (i.e. unit tests and final exams) do not -- students meeting expectations on unit tests do not have to write the final -- the final is a wrap-up activity, a final opportunity for students who have not successfully demonstrated mastery of basic learning outcomes (skills, content, understanding) from the course to do so.