The “Real-World” Midyear (& Final)

standardized testing

It sounds like an oxymoron. After all, what is “real-world” about taking a midyear exam? Outside of taking the LSAT or sitting for Boards, when in life do we adults ever have to take an exam covering the events of the last 5 months? Or worse, a cumulative test on all of the events in the last 10 months?

As a working mother of two littles, I’ll be the first to admit: I. Would. Fail.

And yet, this is exactly what we are asking our students to tackle twice a year. Every year. To prepare them for the real world–which is largely void of these kinds of assessments.

Some will argue (as I did for years) that traditional midyears and finals prepare our students for college. And isn’t education about college and career readiness? However, the next time you talk to a college student, ask what his midyears and finals look like.

Chris and I did.

And the data we gathered was staggering. (We teach in a Level 1 high school, where approximately 90% of our graduates pursue college, ranging from community college to the Ivies.) Our recent grads said their midyears and finals look nothing like what we had asked them to do in high school. We figured that certainly their more largely populated, freshman-level courses consisted of those pesky multiple-choice tests. Those courses didn’t either. Instead, our former students are creating end-products that demonstrate the application of their learning (Can I get an “Amen”?), rather than completing lengthy, multiple-choice tests that rely heavily on recall–the kinds of midyears and finals I administered, for years, to “prepare my students for college.”

In his Chronicle of Higher Education piece entitled Stop Telling Students to Study for Exams,” David Jaffee asserts, “Authentic assessments involve giving students opportunities to demonstrate their abilities in a real-world context. “

Last year, Chris and I set out to create an authentic assessment that that would assess a myriad of standards while giving our students opportunities to demonstrate the speaking and listening skills our learners will need for the rest of their lives. And the Midyear/Final Exam Book Clubs were born. Here is what they look like.

BEFORE THE EXAM

  1. GROUP.  Chris and I create thoughtful groupings of four students–two from his class and two from mine. Ideally, each group consists of two high-achieving students and two students that require more growth. Our schedules don’t perfectly align, so Chris and I have given exams in which sophomores partner up with juniors and/or inclusion students with honors students. And it is beautiful. The entire exam is outside of everyone’s comfort zone; however, we invite students who are extremely anxious to see us privately, so that we can pair them with students of their choosing. Of the 200+ students we assessed last week, only two students took us up on this.
  2. MODEL. Depending on the class, Chris and I sometimes model each of the Speaking and Listening standards one at a time. With my students last year, we closely read a poem (which was already on the docket) and then processed it via fishbowl discussions. (Small groups took turns discussing the poem, each one modeling a different speaking and listening standard). This year, Chris and I have reconfigured our classrooms so that our students have been practicing these standards–in small groups–all year long.  And last week’s midyears felt much more organic as the students were doing what they always do–but with two new group members.
  3. PREPARE. Chris and I share a Book Club Discussion Guide ahead of time, which is divided into three parts. Part One includes break-the-ice questions about the students’ reading journeys (Remember: Our goal is to foster a love of reading), their reflections on Goodreads (which Chris and I both use in our classes), and their experiences with the ten minutes of choice reading with which Chris and I begin every class.  Part Two requires our students to “integrate multiple sources of information presented in diverse media or formats” (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.2). (This year, the topic was education, and students synthesized the aforementioned article by David Jaffee, the video Why I Hate School but Love Education by spoken word artist Suli Breaks, and the testing cartoon read ’round the world.)  Prior to the exam, students annotate the pieces, extracting textual evidence to which they will refer in their Book Clubs.  Part Three asks students to discuss the various components of a recent favorite read, demonstrating that they can analyze literature while enjoying it, too! 

ON MIDYEAR EXAM BOOK CLUB DAY
On testing day, Chris and I meet in our respective classrooms to ensure that everyone is familiar with the three texts. We then head to the media center, get into our groups, and watch the magic happen. 

Screenshot 2016-02-05 at 1.31.24 PM

I wish I could tell you that Chris and I lose ourselves in these rich conversations; and while we are definitely enjoying seeing our students demonstrating HOTS (Higher-Order Thinking Skills), alas, grades still need to be reported out. So, armed with clipboards and rubrics, Chris and I pop in and out of these groups, joining the conversations while jotting down notes.

AFTER THE EXAM

Once the exams are over, Chris and I meet to share our findings about each of our students. With numbers as large as ours, it has proven to be impossible for both of us to join each group.  We made a conscious decision that we would work from different sections of the room and that we would trust each other’s feedback regarding the students. Quite often, a student who has under-performed in one of our classes has proven to be a vibrant contributor when set into this context. Talk about growth!

If you’ve made it this far in this post, know that Chris and I do not have all of the answers. We administered our third round of Book Club Midyears last week and are constantly refining the process to make it better. However, we do know each time we assess our students this way, we get to witness rich, vibrant learning.

And that is exactly why we do what we do.

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