Mr. John Wilkes: Letter to the Editor

Anthony Holten

Anthony Holten

John Wilkes, Social Studies Teacher

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Dear Editor:

With exams now cancelled and many members of the school community feeling relief over the decision, it seems timely to share an opposing sentiment from the oft-expressed joy that this announcement has brought.  It seems certain that this year’s call to cancel was carefully considered and based on an honest appraisal of important educational concerns heightened by unpredicted weather.  Moreover, appropriate accommodations to permit cumulative assessments have been granted with significant flexibility in play to aid teachers who need such assessments to properly instruct their charges.  However, this particular year’s cancellation and the rationale behind it is not the real issue.  In recent forums, including this paper, stakeholders have claimed that permanent cancellation of exams might be a path that Maggie Walker should explore.  As a very long-term stakeholder, I find this position both naïve and short-sighted.

Two central issues seem to surface as exams approach and when weather threatens their smooth orchestration–the loss of instructional time and student stress.  The repeated line that exams take away instructional time is one offered in many school districts and Maggie Walker is no exception.  The truth is that properly conceived and well-orchestrated exams are absolutely one of the best instructional tools a teacher can use. The very act of studying for a comprehensive exam, learning the content and applying the skills it requires is an informative and instructive endeavor.  This is not throw-away time as critics seem to portray it.  In many AP courses, the mid-term exams represents the instructional year’s single best opportunity to simulate the May examination.  No other unbroken, two-hour instructional block exists in the school year.  Sending students into a 3+ hour AP exam with no reasonable simulation of that expensive high-stakes test is a disservice to our students.  Granted, not all students are presently engaged in AP courses.  Yet, the skills one employs in preparing for and taking exams in any class are surely transferrable to a variety of assessments students may encounter immediately or down the road.

I have read that some students believe that midterm exams really don’t impact their learning. Their high SATs, the program’s many years of AP success, and Maggie Walker’s admirable college admissions history is evidence of their inevitable achievement without exams.  Quite the contrary, success on standardized testing and in the college arena does not simply arrive each fall with the new freshman class.  It is the product of thoughtful instruction and rigorous academic challenges that most definitely include exams.

I have been blessed to teach some of this region’s finest during many years in this program and I have never encountered a single student who did not benefit from exams.

Over the past few weeks, alumni have stopped by to share their many experiences in college.  When I ask these young grads how prepared they felt for college, their overwhelming response is one of gratitude for the road they traversed here at MLWGS.  Most also shared that they had just completed exams and while they encountered few if any problems, they observed many of their peers (often from “good” schools) who could not cope with the situation.  The truth is that comprehensive semester exams are very much part of the college experience and they will remains so for the foreseeable future.  To fail to prepare our students for this reality is nothing short of irresponsible.  The time to do so is now.

Concerns over the stress of exams have surely not gone unnoticed here at MLWGS.  The recent reduction in exam weighting has made semester exams far less consequential than a regular test or project in many classes.  While the wisdom of this change is debatable, the recurring mantra of the overwhelming stress brought by exams seems a bit overplayed when the academic stakes are so low.  Maggie Walker was founded as a rigorous academic school and one of its central purposes is to prepare students to thrive in such an environment throughout their lives.  Removing all the stressors in life is not a solution.  Teaching students to deal with academic stress is a legitimate goal of exams.  We have the staff to do this and I believe they do.

Long-term, if we are to address questions surrounding instruction and stress, there are many avenues to take that appear far wiser than cancelling exams.  Up until 10-12 years ago, teachers had much greater flexibility in constructing comprehensive semester evaluations (exams).  In that world, some teachers gave full, two-hour exams, but others gave shorter 1 or 1 ½ hour “checkup” tests.  Weighting could range from 10% to 20% of the semester based upon the teacher’s judgment.  Certain classes were allowed to avoid exams entirely.  As an example, I often teach seminars in topics like genocide or American historiography.  Neither of these requires an exam and yet I have been forced to administer one since standardization began a dozen or so years ago.  Across the broad expanse of Maggie Walker offerings, my guess is that there are 20-25% that might not need an exam to meet their instructional goals.  If we were to give teachers more discretion in the administration of exams and the form they might take, my guess is that we will re-create a more manageable environment while preserving the integrity of the exam week.

In closing, it is certain that nobody likes the work which comes with exams.  While the student perspective seems predictable, rest assured that teachers also bemoan the exam period and the extra work it entails.  In this view, we are all one.  Nevertheless, exams do serve a vital purpose in education –particularly with a student population whose hopes and dreams are as lofty as those here at Maggie Walker.  With some adjustment, they should remain a central part of our instructional model.

Respectfully,

John T. Wilkes

Social Studies Department

 

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