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Monday, October 31, 2011

When is too many tests too many

From the Miami Herald

By Laura Isensee

A long line of tests stand between students and summer — baseline exams, interim tests, FCAT and end-of-course state exams, to name a few.

Many Miami-Dade students can scratch some tests off the list. No more midterms or finals for students in grades 6 through 12.

The longtime staples have been quietly eliminated by the Miami-Dade public schools and the school board. Approved at the October meeting, the policy makes midterms and finals optional.

Many students are elated, even shocked.

“It’s a lot easier when you don’t have to worry about a midterm or a final. It’s a lot easier to get a better grade,” said Katie Goldman, a senior at Dr. Michael M. Krop Senior High.

Midterms and finals, which cover large amounts of material, can weigh heavily on the course grade and grade point average — an increasingly precious number for students vying for college admissions. “It’s a lot less stressful. People freak out about their grade,” said Goldman, 18.

On the flip side, students who hope to ace a midterm or final, boosting their grade, may be bummed. That’s why Hope Wilcox, the student advisor to the school board, first doubted the policy. Students’ incredulous, but strong support changed her mind. She didn’t question the board about it on the dais.

To be sure, tests are not going away. Teachers can give midterms and finals if they want. And students may take quarterly exams. Plus the other state and federal tests and local Miami-Dade assessments that are packed into the year and provide data on students.

District officials say the change is an effort to ease the testing burden on students in secondary grades.

Millie Fornell, Miami-Dade’s associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction, said in an email that the timing for those other assessments often coincided with midterms and finals.

For example, the testing schedule gets extra busy at the end of the year: Advanced Placement exams, other college-prep tests and the end-of-course exams.

The change comes as Florida moves to common end-of-course exams. Last year, Algebra I debuted and in 2012 will see geometry and biology.

Those state exams don’t take the place of classroom midterms or finals, said Cheryl Etters, spokeswoman with the state’s Department of Education. “If they already have a system in place — if they had a midterm or final exam — there’s nothing to keep them from doing that,” she said.

In fact, when Virginia moved to state end-of-course exams, Mel Riddile, a former Virginia principal, said he kept midterms and finals, considering it a more comprehensive approach.

“We didn’t want to wait until the end of the year to find out if students were on target to master the course,” said Riddile, now associate director at the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

Other reasons: teachers could get final grades quicker; finals could serve as a testing warm-ups and there was no match-up between the end-of-course exam — meant as a minimum bar — and an actual course grade.

Karen Aronowitz, president of the United Teachers of Dade, said the district’s change takes away from the value of the work being done by teachers. Teachers typically design the midterm or final for their class, so the exam matches what has been taught up until that point. Other tests that will remain obligatory are more standardized, Aronowitz said.

“When we want to talk about what is really happening in curriculum, you’ve once again made some generality that trumps the work that is going on in the classroom,” Aronowitz said.

Fornell said the district considered teachers and the policy gives them the opportunity to “exercise their professional judgment” and decide what’s the best way to assess learning. The district recently released new grading guidelines.

Some teachers are pleased with the change. “I think this helps alleviate some of the pressure,” said Betty Fritz, who teaches intensive reading at Palmetto Middle School. “It seems like every time you turn around you’re testing or you’re preparing for a test or you’re reviewing a test. It’s a lot of stress.”

Said School Board Vice Chair Lawrence Feldman: “For students, the elimination of the midterm and final exams will allow our students additional opportunities to concentrate their efforts on mastering concepts and skills.”

Even with the change, not everyone will escape midterms or finals. Wilcox, a senior at Miami Lakes Educational Center, said her calculus and computer networking teachers have announced they are keeping midterms and finals.

“Me personally, I’m fine with it,” Wilcox said. “But I know a lot of my peers probably wouldn’t be.”

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