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Everything Old Is New Again: Reimagining Exams

Everything Old Is New Again: Reimagining Exams
Tutt Stapp-McKiernan


Schools with longstanding traditions guard those traditions, as well as the value those traditions bring, both to an institution’s mission and to its sense of identity. But when the time for a change presents itself, smart organizations seize the opportunity for growth--and this year, even before the pandemic had presented itself fully, Wakefield’s English Department saw an opportunity for a change, one that is making its maiden voyage this month. On the occasion of Wakefield’s switch from trimesters to semesters, the English Department has taken the opportunity to pilot the use of a semester project in lieu of a semester exam in the Upper School.

To longtime observers of Wakefield this might seem anathema--not least to alumni, who at minimum might wish for subsequent Wakefield classes to exert every ounce of effort they themselves had to exert to receive a Wakefield diploma. But English Department Chair Matt Zontine argued successfully in his proposal to Wakefield’s Senior Leadership that a semester project need not be seen as “less” than an exam for demonstrating a student’s mastery and understanding. In fact--a well-designed project can often do even better.

In the Department’s proposal, Mr. Zontine wrote, “Literature is a course of study that focuses on learning analytical skills over content. Although content is still important, and we want our students to take away certain information, we really want them to learn how to examine a work of literature critically in the future. In fact, the A.P. Literature Examination is all about analyzing pieces of poetry and prose and understanding how language works rather than memorizing information.”

Towards this end, the Upper School English teachers worked together to create a framework and a list of criteria all teachers' projects would have to meet, to ensure that, just like an exam, the projects would ask students to demonstrate their understanding of material covered in class, while also asking them to think independently about a work of literature and create something fresh and new, based on both learned understanding, and the application of individual insight and creative expression. 

And teachers responded swiftly and creatively. Junior Brit Lit students, for example, will be creating screenplays based on scenes from classical literature, moving events up into modern times to illustrate the works’ timeless themes. Some seniors will be choosing their top-ten pivotal scenes from a first-semester novel and creating a soundtrack for those scenes; others will be illustrating a top-ten-scenes selection with their own original photography. In all cases, written material accompanying the creative work must articulate analytical aspects, making clear how the student’s creative work sheds light on studied aspects of the original literature.

The Social Studies Department had teachers who chose to participate in the English Department’s pilot program, too: US History students will be answering essential questions about a period of history by choosing a nonfiction narration of an historical event from an “ordinary person,” and then choosing three works of art that they feel speak to that individual’s experience of history as well as the historical moment itself. Perhaps most enticingly of all, World Civ students will be designing virtual museum exhibits in which to house their choice of primary sources that illustrate each of four periods of history! 

Going forward, the plan is for other Departments to rotate through having the opportunity to give a project rather than an exam. 

“The advantages of this flexible approach are manifold,” says Head of Upper School Dr. Gabriel Fuchs. “For certain classes, in-depth projects may serve as more accurate indicators of student mastery of material than traditional exams, particularly when students are asked to adapt or apply what they have learned in some way. This approach gives our expert teachers the freedom to use their professional judgment as to what is best for their students. It also aligns us with changes happening in higher education, which is important for us as a college preparatory school. That’s not to say that traditional exams have entirely gone away, and don’t have their appropriate place in academics. For us, it always comes down to giving our students as broad a base of experience as we can, so that they have a firm foundation from which to take their next big step.” 

Head of School Ashley Harper agrees. “One of the things that I love most about our mission is that it is focused on the ultimate results we are committed to as a school,” she says. “Those results are a balance between developing a person's intellect/ academic experience and their social-emotional growth, in order to foster their personal growth into capable, ethical, and articulate citizens. With a mission that is driven to develop people, not content, we are able to constantly scan the horizon considering how the world around us is changing and be agile to make appropriate change while never letting go of our ethos. The what and how may change, but the why remains… The changes in assessment methods are closely aligned with what we know colleges and universities are doing today, as well as preparing our students for the more collaborative and project-focused nature of much of today's professional settings.”

Interestingly, just as this story was preparing to post to Wakefield’s website, Mother Nature delivered another “opportunity” for Wakefield to “be agile” in thinking about exam methodology: the first big snow in a couple of years was forecast to fall on Wednesday--the first day of semester exams! 

Although it must have felt like “deja vu all over again” after the titanic effort involved in both the school’s spring pivot to distance learning and the September return to a socially-distanced campus, Wakefield’s Educational Leadership Team launched into full gear this past weekend--again!--and by Monday had a plan to roll out to faculty for (yes, you guessed it) the school’s first virtual exams. Teachers had a slim 48 hours to convert their already-printed, two-hour hard-copy exams into digital form, ready to be both taken and proctored online from the safety of students’ and teachers’ snowbound homes.

How to characterize the depth and breadth of the challenges of 2020? Dr. Fuchs said this to his Upper School faculty upon announcing the decision to go with virtual exams: “Once again, 2020 rears its ugly head, forcing us to rise above all it can throw at us as we deliver on our school's mission. Thank you for your day-in, day-out efforts to do just that!”