T Sale's Blog

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Ready, Set, Write

In the last couple of years I’ve noticed an increasing trend in my English classes: students asking for more than the allotted class time for essay tests. In the past, my answer has always been no; an essay test is a controlled measure of your knowledge and it would be unfair to give you more time than other students. But I’m changing my mind about this.

For one thing, more accommodations allowing extra time on tests are mandated by IEPs and 504s, and it seems there’s always at least one student who has been granted extra time. The AP Literature test requires three essays to be written in two hours, so for years we have prepared students by having them write a weekly in-class essay with a 40 minute time limit. Recently I have had a few AP students who have asked for extra time, one of whom has a 504 that will grant extra time on the actual test.

But perhaps more compelling is the idea that truly assessing a student’s knowledge should not be time-dependent. I point out to my students that timed writings are a particularly academic pursuit. Where else in the real world, except perhaps as a journalist, would you have to pound out an essay in a certain amount of time with no chance to revise and polish it? (I’m probably wrong about this too, as I seem to be about so many things lately. In the fast-paced world of blogs and wikis, maybe rapid, on-the spot-writing is becoming more the norm. It would be interesting to ask some engineers and lawyers and corporate wonks if this is true.) Given that most of my essay “tests” (really in-class writings) are open book and don’t depend on memorization, is it unfair to let a student who has a lot to say finish the writing in an off hour the next day? Will the extra time to think about the question give her an advantage over the students who said all they had to say in 58 minutes?

I’d be interested to hear what people think about this.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Grade Reflections

On the occasion of “six week grades” I found myself reflecting on how insidious computer grade books like Infinite Campus can be. It’s so easy to plug in points and let the program calculate totals and percentages and tell you what the students’ grades are. So many times in recent years I’ve found myself madly entering grades to meet an arbitrary deadline and then immediately publishing those grades, without really considering what the numbers mean. The program says a student’s grade calculates to a B+, so that’s the grade. Like the students, I think we get caught up in tallying points without considering the circumstances of the work the students do, or the point in time (early or late in the semester) that the work was completed, or whether, even though the student’s average says that she earned a C, the fact is that by the end of the semester she was consistently doing B work, suggesting that that is her current level of achievement. I am experimenting with a 4-point scale that actually hearkens back to the days when we (people of a certain age) used to write A’s, B’s, and C’s in the grade book and really look at them when it came time to assign a semester grade, considering relative difficulty of assignments and looking for trends. (To see my explanation of how the 4-point scale is supposed to work, look at the Class Overview linked from my English 10 web page.) It’s much less convenient, not letting the computer do the number crunching, but it makes me think about what those numbers mean.