If you’re reading this post “live” on Monday, it’s the half-way point of first-semester classes in my face-to-face teaching world. My students have been busy with the major assessment process I outlined in this post and this one, then described more fully in this one. They’re finishing their collaborative response tasks today – a film or illustrated, narrated story built on Latin stories they wrote last week. And they’ll be doing their individual response tasks, reading and responding to a short prepared passage and a short “sight” passage, today and tomorrow.
It’s the second time we’ve wrapped up a reporting period this way. And once again, I’m struck by how different it feels when we wrap things up this way instead of with a long, written midterm exam. What once was stressful and horrible has become relatively calm and reflective.
I have to be honest, though. It was stressful and horrible to grade the exams … especially with a tight deadline for turning in grades! But I loved writing and designing long, written exams. They always featured opportunities for my students to
- show what they knew and remembered about Roman culture
- respond to a passage they’d previously read
- use and analyze the grammatical forms we’d studied
- read and interpret a new passage
- connect Latin root words with English derivatives
- respond to a Quaestiō Magna about the “big picture” of what we’d been studying.
Note that we’re still doing those things, but in a different, less stressful way.
What caused the change? For one thing, I noticed my students not only hated taking exams, but frequently didn’t demonstrate the skill level I knew they’d developed – the skill level I’d seen, over and over again, when we did similar tasks in class.
Why, I wondered? Why were the exam results so different from what I’d observed?
At first I was sad. And then I was mad. Or maybe I was mad first, then sad. But eventually I realized I needed to … ask the students. “Why don’t you do as well on the exams,” I asked, “as you do when we do the exact same thing in class?”
Or words to that effect. And of course I had to wait until my students trusted me.
Then, one day last spring, I finally heard – finally understood – the answer. “Long tests scare me,” said J. “I know I know the answer, but when I see a long test, it’s like my brain shuts down. All I can think about is how long the test is, and how important it is, and what will happen when I do bad.”
When. J, who is brilliant and diligent, walks into tests knowing she won’t do well. She’s learned that lesson from years and years of testing … long, standardized tests. Tests her teachers “prepared” her for by presenting content to memorize. J tries to memorize everything … and of course she “did bad,” because you can’t memorize everything.
Unless, of course, you’re Google. Or Wikipedia.
Why are we training students to be Google and Wikipedia??
J wasn’t alone, either. Out of 65 Latin II students last spring, there were easily two dozen who viewed long tests as a terrifying threat, not a measure of learning. A third of my students, or more, simply couldn’t demonstrate their skills in the format I’d provided.
That bothered me. A lot. And the underlying issues bothered Rachel and Debbie this weekend, too. We seem to agree we need to change the task. Make it less scar, more authentic, more meaningful. Make the task an accurate measure.
But not everybody agrees.
“Those bad, lazy students!” Ms. X and Mr. Y would say. “We’ve been way, way too easy on them if they think that way! I’ll show them! I’ll make the next test even longer! I’ll make them longer and longer and longer till those bad, lazy children realize that in the Real World, they’ll …”
What? Take long written tests?? Be punished randomly by angry authority figures – who really end up punishing themselves? Wait weeks instead of days for results that could be, should be, instantaneous?
Yes, in the Real World – the one where information is hyper-abundant, where knowing how to learn is critical, and where you have access to the tools you need – you do demonstrate your knowledge, your skills, your understandings. But not on a written test! The more we cling to the paradigm of school as knowledge-transmission factory, of written test as post-production quality assurance, the more disengaged our students become – and the more students suffer from crippling “test anxiety.”
I’d be anxious, too, if someone wanted me to operate something totally outdated, totally foreign to my experience, and then punished me for doing badly.
If the measure gives invalid results, you change the measure. If the thermometer is broken, you get a new one. You don’t yell at the “bad, lazy” patient whose fever didn’t register on your broken thermometer!
So why do schools keep using measures that don’t actually measure?
And as I asked on Saturday, how do we move from knowledge transmission factory to joyful learning community? Can you repurpose a knowledge factory to shelter a learning community? Or do you just have to walk out and walk on?