My students came back from the AP Exam gushing about how easy it felt, how well-prepared they were, and asking me why I made such a big deal out of this easy test. My first reaction was fear that they were so woefully under-prepared they couldn’t even grok the difficulty of the exam. As more students corroborated this story of general ease, I decided to reflect on how that happened.
This was my first year teaching AP World History. Point of order: I’ve never taught the same class twice. In four years I’ve taught everything from 6th grade to 12th grade; always with different courses. This gives me incredible flexibility, and makes it easy for me to design new lessons within a short time frame. This diversity also keeps me excited since I’m continually working to learn new content and curriculum. At the same time, however, I’ve become skilled at creating first drafts of lessons, and it can be frustrating to feel like I never have a strong piece of curriculum that I’ve been able to design, deliver, evaluate, and refine.
Overall I think I had a strong year. The externally assessed and designed exam was freeing as it removed the ego from my teaching. I did not feel forced to justify the content and skill expectations of my teaching, and when students challenged the relevance or worth of any of our work I felt free to agree or disagree with them without doing damage to my credibility as a teacher. The College Board sets the standards, and we have to work to meet them. The extent to which we agree with said standards is (somewhat) irrelevant.
The idea of a clearly defined final exam also enabled me to be more flexible and open with my assessment and grading throughout the year. The exam date was May 17th and we all knew that from the beginning of the course. As a result I could take the approach that it did not matter if a student learned a skill on September first, or on May 16th, as long as they were able to demonstrate mastery before the exam. To make this work I used a significant array of learning targets following a standards-based-assessment approach. This allowed me to be very flexible on due dates, and allow students multiple chances to re-attempt a skill and demonstrate mastery of that skill.
This worked extremely well with essay skills, but I am not satisfied with how it played out regarding pure historical content and tests and quizzes. I think a number of students took advantage of the opportunity to re-take a quiz and did not study for the first one, knowing that they had another chance. This reminds me of a gamer-like attitude of having multiple lives. The students don’t feel a strong need to prepare for their quiz because they have another life left and they don’t need to take it seriously until they’re on their last life. The students are used to having multiple chances to be successful, and so there is no incentive to get it right the first time. They have little to no fear of failure.
The essays function differently though because multiple revisions are authentic to the writing process. The content tests are supposed to be an assessment of what has been learned by a given point. By offering the opportunity to re-take the test I am measuring what they have learned at a different time. That can still be useful, but if my intent is to check progress I need to keep the measure appropriate to that intent. In order to have students take the tests and quizzes more seriously I will remove the opportunity for re-taking them. I want to use the quizzes to assess the students’ ability to read their text, and the quiz serves as an external incentive to read. By offering too many second chances the incentive was removed.
I predict that this change will have an initial negative impact on students’ grades, but by increasing the stakes for the quizzes students should take them more seriously and should also develop the skills of close reading and content retention in order to be successful. I also predict that this will increase the value of students’ notes as a resource for studying and could create a correlated improvement in note taking. In order to help off-set the increased difficulty of quizzes I plan on spending a bit more time at the beginning of next year working on test taking skills and proper methods for using notes to study for a test.
Here’s to next year.