New Twists on the Old Exam Week
Over the past few years, our district and our school staff have been working to improve our assessment practices. Most of this has been centered around AFL: Assessment for Learning. In our high school, each department is organized into subject-related professional learning communities (PLC) where they have been given the task of making meaning of these six strategies in their area and making a connection between their classroom practice and the school goals. Each team is at a different place on the continuum, but each is making progress. People are gradually becoming more comfortable with “learning outcomes” over “tasks and assignments,” and there is growing willingness to find more time and more support to help kids “show what they know” without strict and arbitrary deadlines or one-size-fits-all assessments. However, this is not a perfect world.
In the province of British Columbia, we still have end-of-semester final summative exams, which on their own, seem to fly in the face of AFL. Students are still required to write these standardized, often multiple-choice, “high stakes” tests at a set time and place. These summative exams still have their place in education. Thankfully, however, the Ministry of Education has reduced the number of these exams and is now looking at a new “BC Education Plan” where there is expected to be more flexibility in how and when kids learn. Until then, twice a year, we still have Exam Week. With the reduced number of mandatory exams, our school district challenged all of our high schools to change the way we do Exam Week. The task was to find more instructional time and less down-time. Up until now, there was always the “opportunity” for students to get lots of contact time and extra support, but the onus often fell to the students. Teachers were available. Teenagers, being teenagers, made terrific or terrible use of this opportunity depending on the type of learner they were.
This year, the School District Office Staff insisted that we do things differently. At first this was received with consternation and concern, followed by consultation and collaboration. We did this despite the current reality of “Teacher Job Action” in British Columbia, because there is no rule that says we can’t still talk with one another. At our high school, we discussed this with staff and students before building what we hoped would be a workable hybrid schedule for the NEW EXAM WEEK. This schedule was a mix of “mandatory class time," “flex time” for students to study with teachers or peers, and “I-time.” The “I-time” was mandatory time for students with incomplete work (I) to get that work completed before the semester and course ended. Initially, there were doubters and skeptics, but everyone agreed to give it a try.
Last week was Exam Week, and I am pleased to report that everyone – staff and students – made tremendous use of the new schedule and structures. Most teachers used the “mandatory class time” to give their own final assessments. Some of these were traditional summative tests, but others were more authentic, hands-on assessments. This obviously looked different in physics than phys ed, calculus than cooking, or English than electronics, but everyone made the most of the situation. Similarly, “flex time” was very productive. Some teachers held tutorials or mock exams, while others facilitated hands-on labs or guided study sessions. Some students took advantage of this extra teacher-time, while others opted to find places to study alone or in peer groups. What was most pleasing from my perspective was the number of students and teachers making use of the “I-time” to get caught up on work that probably should have been done earlier in the semester but, for whatever reason, was not. The data is not in yet, but anecdotally, I can rest assured that many students found a way to pass a class that they were at risk of failing. At the same time, teachers were able to help students wrap up their learning and prepare for the final assessments in whatever form those appeared.
Looking beyond this Exam Week, I am hopeful. Staff and students report that they liked the changes and made the most of the time available. Many teachers have already been making suggestions about ways we could enhance the structure and schedules for next semester. Others are already talking about ways to bring this mix of “mandatory class time," "flex time," and "I-time" into the schedule even before the next end-of-semester Exam Week. Many teachers are sharing the successes of the structured flexibility, the opportunity for other kinds of assessments, and the excitement of helping more kids be even more successful.
As we continue along on our AFL journey, these changes and opportunities offer very exciting potential.