By Lauren Goldberg, Curriculum Coordinator
On a recent afternoon as I walked across campus, I noticed several small groups of ninth graders gathered in animated conversation. Three students were under a tree; another three sat on a bench outside the Jonathan Milikowsky Science and Technology Building; a few more were sprawled on the steps near the Middle School building. They were all rehearsing final presentations for their history class. These scholars had conducted comprehensive investigations and prepared speeches about citizenship, immigration, the census and other issues related to culture and American society. Next week, instead of taking an exam, they will deliver their speeches to their classmates.
Sixth graders are spending most of their final science classes outdoors in the school's community garden, observing and documenting the changes that have happened since they started planting and tracking the various plots in our outdoor space on Highland Street. They are also weeding, clearing paths, and cleaning the area as a final service project for the community. "This is a life science class, after all," says Andrew Zielinski, one of their teachers. "Our work in the garden gives you a perfect opportunity to be connected to the land that is part of our school, and to return to where we started at the beginning of the year when we first visited the space to start our observational drawings of living things."
The eighth graders are wrapping up the "sludge test" in science (see our recent post about that project). They are completing literature-based essays about the American Dream in English class, and they are also in the last stretch of a research paper about the Supreme Court for history class. Each student chose a case decided by the Court in the past 120 years and prepared a comprehensive analysis of the issues, significance and Constitutional rights involved in the decision. The paper allows students to apply what they've been learning all year about rights and responsibilities of American citizens.
Each of these activities, and several others across the Middle School, will serve as the final assessment in their respective courses. The students will also be sitting for more traditional final exams in some classes. But across the curriculum, tests are balanced by project-based tasks during these last few weeks of school. In seventh grade science, for example, the students will be asked to solve problems based on Newton's laws of motion and other physics principles, which they are observing first-hand through an incredible rocket-building unit.
This balance of projects, individual choice and in-class assessments reflects our knowledge of—and our expectations for—middle school learners. Several years ago, we began to notice an increased level of anxiety among our sixth through ninth grade students as the end-of-year exam week loomed. Head of Middle School John Turner convened a group of faculty members, who gathered research and insights from community members as well as professional experts. The committee's proposal—to reduce the number of timed, in-class tests and to spread the final assessments over a longer period of time—is now a reality. During this week's Morning Meeting, John spoke to the students about managing their workload and their preparations. He emphasized the importance of sleep, nutrition and mindset, and he offered suggestions for efficient ways of studying.
John is circumspect about the goals and challenges of assessment, especially regarding adolescent learners. "We don't want to fall into the trap of saying, 'Well, they're going to need to know how to take high-stakes tests in high school, so it's our job to prepare them now,' because they're not high school students yet," he says. "At the same time, we want to give them the skills they need to study and review material that they've learned over a semester." The subjects that rely on cumulative knowledge (such as math, Latin, and modern languages) are therefore the ones that have retained more traditional end-of-year tests. The courses that emphasize synthetic and analytical skills (such as English, history, and science) lend themselves more readily to projects and applications of knowledge.
When John spoke at Morning Meeting, he reminded the students that the results of their final tests, papers and projects are not the only assessments that will be tallied into their grades for the term. He encouraged them to reflect on, and celebrate, how much they've learned this year. "These assessments give you a chance to show what you know," he said optimistically. "You can feel a sense of celebration about everything you've accomplished."
Although his encouraging words probably did not relieve everyone's worries, John also shared a very important message with the student body: "Your teachers want you to succeed. There is nothing that makes us happier than when we see you do well on these tasks." We are, indeed, a community of learners, and it is a wonderful thing when we can all show, and take pride in, what we know.