Last year, the West Windsor-Plainsboro school district revamped the high school midterm, replacing one-period, do-or-die cumulative tests with three smaller assessments in each subject scattered across the first semester. The new system was designed to promote the district’s 21st-century Competencies and to help students who thrive during class activities but struggle on high-stakes exams.
“This fair, low-pressure system will make life easier for students,” The Knightly News wrote in a November 2013 editorial. Unfortunately, our optimistic prediction has not come to pass: The new three-part midterm has turned into an unmitigated disaster, burdening teachers with long hours of grading and overwhelming students, who now have to worry about periodic midterm tests on top of their regular coursework.
The district has made no effort to coordinate the assessments, which occasionally come in the form of unexpected “pop exams,” across different disciplines, meaning that students often take multiple midterms in a single week. Some of these tests are genuinely creative: a group presentation in AP Language and Composition, a student-run museum in Human Anatomy and Physiology. But in many subjects, the assessments are hardly the sort of multifaceted, innovative challenges the district promised. Does the freshman LA I midterm, which consists of three identical one-paragraph responses, really train students to collaborate with peers, conduct research, or solve complex problems?
An almost comical level of secrecy surrounds the three-part exams. Teachers sometimes joke that they will be fired if they misplace midterm test papers, which students are not allowed to take home. Understandably, the district wants to avoid a large-scale academic integrity violation that would skew student performance data. But some teachers never return midterm papers, and many who do give students only a few minutes to look at their work.
Starting next year, the district should abolish the midterm entirely. The original system, which required students to take a series of important exams at the end of January, reflected an unhealthy commitment to antiquated testing strategies. And the new three-part midterm has failed to either relieve stress or challenge students in interesting ways. Indeed, the current system is not really a midterm at all; it’s a set of conventional tests to which the district has affixed a misleading label. There’s no reason three seemingly random assignments should weigh more in the grade book than everyday coursework.
With spring PARCC testing expected to consume hours of class time, several New Jersey districts have already cancelled their midterm exams. Clearly, a high school can function without a midterm grade. WW-P ought to continue encouraging teachers to create fair assessments that evaluate more than just a student’s ability to color circles on a Scantron. But the district’s confusing, counter-productive midterms have to go.