Great Thoughts – Why Do We Test?

The end of the semester approaches, and the holidays bring joy and renewal for both students and teachers. I handed back my math semester exam to my 6th graders – it is the first exam most of them have ever taken, and it was a pretty stressful time. We reviewed for 5 full class days, had a quiz over the review, and then had one more major tutorial the afternoon before the exam. A pretty comprehensive effort for such a small effort.

Really, though…is this exam the best idea for measuring student learning and development? Does it adequately show understanding of math concepts? I think the answer to the latter question is yes. A student has to remember a number of procedures (we test about 25 mutually exclusive concepts in 67 questions, and just about all questions are a different type). I think a student has to be ready to complete many different types of problems, showing a comprehensive understanding of all material taught.

But the first part of the question (is the exam the best idea for measuring success), is a bit puzzling to me. First, I think it’s time to review what it is we are trying to assess. The exam is a traditional method of testing concepts; however, it is quite stale and linear (ie, complete one problem and move to the next). Sometimes we can build multi-part problems, but then missing part A will impact the numbers you use in part B. There are always ways to adapt and tweak a test to get students to think, but I believe there has to be something better than a 2-hour exam. Here are some of my thoughts:

What if we spend the last two weeks on a real-life problem or issue? I don’t think that we can solve a problem using 6th grade math concepts, but we could analyze that problem and develop a way to interpret the data discovered.

I wonder if students would retain information better if they can connect the material presented over the semester to how they used it in their analysis project? I think that if the parameters are set so that a skeleton structure is made, and there are certain deliverable materials required over the course of the project, even math classes could use PBL programs to assess understanding of a semester’s worth of material.

I think I would want students to work in pairs, so that I could minimize “hiding” by those who may not understand enough to contribute as much as they should. This would hopefully encourage them to seek out help and expand their research…or even review old material!

This is just a primer to what I may be able to do in the future. But the conversation circles back to the frustration I have with semester exams and the potential to build something sustainable for students to feel a sense of accomplishment upon completing while showing me their understanding of mathematical concepts presented since August.

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