Monday, January 24, 2011

Midterm Season


Midterms are almost upon us at the high school I work at. The testing period has been pushed back due to the string of inclement weather the Atlantic region has faced, but by the end of the month 1500 students will be required to complete midterms in core academic courses and year-long electives. The stress level at the high school increases for both students and teachers as stakeholders try to balance midterms exams, classes and extracurricular engagements.

I wonder if midterm exams are worth the effort and stress. The schedule is overhauled to find space for the administering of midterm exams. As a result of the weather, this schedule has been reworked on several occasions. Even though educators need to be flexible, their ability to alter instructional sessions is compromised with each cancellation or delayed opening. Additionally, to a certain extent, the schedule continues as if the midterms did not exist. Classes progress towards the end of the marking period. Extracurricular activities are not halted. Students and teachers head towards practices and meetings before, during and after school. The intensity is heightened as classroom participants try to manage academic expectations.

I question the worth of midterm exams. I see value in delivering a final assessment. Students should be placed in a position where they need to synthesize information accrued throughout the year and defend personal interpretations. However, I do not think midterms serve the same purpose. Do classes need to stop in the “middle” of the year to evaluate progress? Educators are supposed to be constantly assessing students both formally and informally. Each day data is being gathered and used to personalize learning. In theory, what are we going to learn on a midterm that we do not already know about a student? This is particularly true if the midterm is uniform across a class or course. We cannot privilege a personalized learning environment and deliver the complete opposite for a midterm exam.

I would rather see classes where students are engaged in a process of continually making meaning. Prior assertions are constantly challenged through guided and organic inquiries. New information is evaluated against existing perspectives. Discovery is an extended process with the learning afforded the time and space to determine truth. As stated before, the end result should be a public exhibition in which the learner can demonstrate understanding and growth.

If we are to have midterms, the emphasis needs to be on the demonstration of skills more so than the regurgitation of content. I was excited to read a post over the weekend from the Teaching Paperless blog. The blog’s creator, Shelly Blake-Plock shared a broad description of a midterm he created for his Human Geography course. I shared the post with several teachers who were struggling to develop a midterm assessment that moved away from the traditional memorization and recall format to a structure that was authentic and skills based. The most recent post on Teaching Paperless shared the actual Human Geography exam. The examination assesses a learner’s ability to actually become a researcher in human geography through the completion of ten different tasks. All of the work is to be displayed on the student’s blog. Students are required to complete a range of tasks that are united through conducting research inquiries. My favorite questions are #5 and #7. The implications of a student being able to accomplish these specific tasks is significant. Learners are challenged to synthesize information, critically analyze a problem and make informed recommendations. A broad range of skills are engaged to meet the exam requirements. The exam has depth as opposed to a narrow focus.

Regardless of whether midterms are assigned, any assessment has to have enduring value. The hope is that over the next two weeks our students will be engaged in meaningful endeavors that represent challenges learners will face in college or the professional world. The hope is that students and teachers will view midterms as time well spent. Teachers can further the accumulation of students data and build personalized learning experiences. Students can hopefully find time to reflect on their performance and either revisit or if warranted, revise personal learning goals.