Mar 22 2014

Secrecy in Schools, Followup

On Thursday evening, I met with my daughter’s Grade 10 Science teacher, and she was pleasant and did a good job explaining the exam and I now feel that this teacher is at least competent.  However, I also met with the vice-principal, and asked for further explanation of the “secret” exam policy.   I am paraphrasing, but the reason for it comes down to this:

Our teams put a lot of effort into developing unit exams, which we do to ensure that all students take the same exam.  Because of the effort, we like to use the standard exam for a whole term or even whole school year.  However, we find it necessary to “secure” the exams because once they “get out” students get their hands on them and many students are then able to have an unfair advantage.

My fundamental problem is that parents are not allowed to see these exams except for a brief meeting with a teacher.  The only route my child has to learn from her mistakes is to schedule an appointment with the same teacher and review it with her.  If she struggled to understand from the teacher in the first place, it might help if that parent could try at home.  But that is not allowed.

The reason for keeping the exam secret also bother me because it assumes that parents would “leak” the exam to other students.  That lack of trust seems problematic to me.

However, the single biggest failure in this scheme is that exams at a high school level need to be set by committee, creating significant overhead and the need for such ridiculous policies in the first place.  Any teacher competent enough to teach a high school subject should also be capable, and required, to set their own exams.  Yes, students in one class may get a different exam than another class in another term or year, but it shouldn’t matter.  Based on the curriculum topics, a competent teacher should be able to set a high school exam in no more than twice the time the students are given to write it.  In fact, I know from professors I had in University that one of the fun parts of teaching was coming up with creative exam questions.

The other topic for exams that this episode has caused me to get frustrated is the move away from exams where students must show their work or express themselves towards multiple choice exams where only the answer is evaluated.  This is a terrible way to test whether someone knows something.  Evaluating a student when demonstrating their capability but making a small error (such as dropping a 2) allows them to receive “partial marks” and for the teacher to better explain the error to the student so they can learn from their mistakes.  Multiple choice exams do not do this.

This use of “committees” to do work that can and should be done by individuals is a critical flaw in many parts of our society.  And in the schools it seems even more ill-placed.   Committee development tends to the lowest common denominator and generally removes creative ideas because consensus is more important than quality.  I see this in my job (which has nothing to do with education) and I can now see the mess it is causing in education, whether at the individual school, board or even provincial ministry level.

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  1. Cynical Bard

    I kind of like the idea of standardized exams, to allow the school boards to use them to judge the relative competency of teachers, and ensure all students are judged to the same standard.

    But giving the marked exams back is a “teaching moment.” I had one course in University where the Prof wanted an oral exam after the written one. When I showed up for my appointment, he was holding my written test, and said:

    “Question 4. You didn’t to too good. Do it for me on the Board.”

    I don’t like multiple choice tests, as it is possible to get over 50% just by guessing. I took an English course where multiple choice test was supposed to cover a group of books we had been assigned. I had read none of them and got 65%.

    In math and science, there has to be a procedure you followed to get anything done. You might follow the one taught tor invent your own, but you can/must show the logic or process on how to attack the problem, which can be more important than what answer you got .

  2. Ira

    For higher level work I can see the value is showing one’s work, but for low-level math often it’s difficult to show the work if the student has a strong grasp of the subject. Neural networks (like the human brain) rely on shortcuts to work faster, and if you’re good at math you’ll likely get an answer without knowing how you got there.

    It is for this reason that I liked multiple choice questions when I was in school. But I did criticize the tests for making it too easy to find the correct answer. As Cynical Bard points out, it’s often possible to score well on a multiple choice test without actually solving the questions. I always thought that the wrong answers on a multiple choice test should be answers that someone was likely to reach by making common errors. Moving a decimal, or dropping a negative, for example. Typically, someone writes those tests by solving the problem and then comparing his answer to the available options. If he finds his answer there, he selects it. I suggest that the wrong answers should be answers that people are likely the find when doing the work, rather than the seemingly random numbers they were when I was in school.

    Also, assigning a penalty for wrong answers would discourage guessing. I was in the Math Club in school, and when I competed in math competitions the scoring went 6 points for a right answer, and -2 points for a wrong answer (with five available options). If you couldn’t narrow down a question to 2 options, it was beneficial to skip questions (and take a 0 score) rather than guessing and risking a -2.

    Once student begins studying calculus, I can see a need for the work to be shown every time. But for traditional algebra I think that would frustrate the more advanced students. Math isn’t about following rigid processes to reach the answer. Math is about understanding how the numbers work together.

  3. Cynical Bard

    I have visions of math test in high school algebra, where the student is show a proof of “1 = 2”, and the question is to write an explanation of each step, plus where it went wrong, and why. Extra points for proper English.

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