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Last week, our students took their midterm exams. On midterm exam week, high school students in our district receive a half-day week so that teachers can input grades, so that students can get more studying in (it is debatable as to whether or not they devote their time off to quality studying time, but I digress), so that administrators can actually get some office work done and so that the school can receive addition TLC from the maintenance staff. Of course there was the normal anxiety and fear from the students; there was also a lot of cramming and rushing going on. My students in particular, were experiencing high levels of anxiety regarding the tests they were studying for. I assured them that things would be okay as long as they studied hard and took their time when testing – for some that was enough and for others, it didn’t matter.

Now you’d think that the students would be the ones most anxious regarding these midterms, but instead it was the administration at our school. Our administrators, in each of our high schools, were concerned about the outcomes of midterms for various reasons and that message was passed onto the faculty. Of course, no one within our district desires that our kids do poorly on their exams. However, in order to know if they’ve learned anything of substance, particularly a semester’s worth of work (Sept. to Jan.), we (teachers) need some wiggle room to ask a solid number of questions on an exam. I guess our administrators weren’t in agreement as to how much wiggle room we needed.

Moment of the Week

As per district policy, we are to send a copy of our midterms, with answers, to our principal supervisor. I sent my principal my first finished midterm: a 61 question exam consisting of 50 multiple choice and 10 short answer questions (constructed using Bloom’s Taxonomy of Cognitive Domains level 2, 3, and 4), as well as 2 essay questions (students were to select one to answer). The students had 90 minutes to complete all of their exams. I was told that my exam was too much for our students to complete. I was told to shorten my exam to 40 multiple choice questions, 5 short answer and not to give my students a choice of essays to choose from. My principal informed me that all of my exams should follow that format. Of course I followed orders, but I wasn’t entirely in agreement with my principal. I reflected back to my midterm days and I remembered taking exams that were 100 plus questions; I wasn’t a fan of it then, I am not really a fan of it now. But I didn’t have exams less than 50 questions, even in any of my mathematics courses, throughout high school. Yet just as my principal assumed they would, the students had a rough time finishing, at least my students with my midterm.

In just about each of my 6 classes, about half of the students in each class finished their midterm with half time remaining. The majority of the remaining half completed their exams within 20 minutes of their time being up. I did not intentionally make it the sort of exam that you would be unable to finish under 1 hour. I even threw 3 to 5 “gimme questions” in there to help the students with their confidence. Even worse than that is to hear the negativity our students put on themselves when they spoke. They’ve said things like, “Mr. Miller, ima fail your test,” or “Ima fail this exam Mr. Miller,” or “I know Mr. Miller gonna make this test super hard… ima fail it.” It doesn’t help that my principal says to the students that she’ll talk to the teachers and make sure that your exams aren’t too hard when they express their fears. When it comes to academics, while we hold our kids to high standards yet we promote a culture of fear, anxiety, timidity and defeatism. We’ve got to change that culture.

Lesson of the Week

There is a fine line between encouraging a student and babying them. I honestly believe that the culture at our school walks that line each day, wobbling from one side to another. In the case of my principal imposing limitations on midterm exam questioning, no one is either right or wrong. Teachers can have a tendency to go overboard and administrators can too be overly concerned with the “numbers.” Consensus must be reached for the creation of assessments that are simultaneously challenging and practical. Not that I (or any of my colleagues) gave up any rigor in our shortened exams, but, “safeguards” have been instituted in case a number of students do poorly on an exam. I understand that it is our (educators) responsibility to ensure that our students are learning when they are in our presence, yet we have to make sure that we don’t set them up for failure when they leave our presence.

When you are late for an appointment, late with a bill, or you fail to hold up your end of any obligation or task, there are consequences attached to those failures, just as there are consequences attached to our successes. It’s not about letting a child fail a test, but we (educators) ought to stress the real life implications surrounding one’s failure to complete a mission/assignment.  The world that awaits our children is not concerned about them… the world is only concerned about whether or not our children can meet their bottom line. We’ve all got to do a better job of aligning the actual job of completing course work with the obligations adults have to meet on a daily basis and what it all means in the way of real life consequences. In other words, we’ve got to keep it real.

Rann Miller is an educator and freelance writer based in Southern New Jersey. His Urban Education...

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