Thursday, August 30, 2012

Initial thoughts on "Take the test when you're ready..."

Today was the first day of my Math Analysis students' "Summer Packet Exam".  I have already instituted the "test when you are ready" policy, meaning that if a student doesn't feel ready for the test, then I don't want them to take it. However, if they don't take it on "test day", then they have to take it on their OWN time outside of class.  While the rest of the class is taking the test, they are sitting off to the side studying and reviewing.

Today I had a total of 32 students (out of 95) choose to NOT take day 1 of the exam.  Out of those 32, 11 weren't allowed to yet anyways (they hadn't finished the summer work so they weren't approved).  However, that means 21 students chose to say "I'm not ready" and didn't take the exam.

Now, we will see when this "ordeal" is over if the test results make it worth it, but here are a few of my initial concerns:

1. I will have to make many more versions of the test (with answer keys) than years past.  Making the different versions isn't too difficult with the generator I have (Kuta Software), but making the answer keys for certain problems not from the generator (namely graphs with multiple parts, word problems, etc) is time consuming.   I suppose I could have rotating versions, but I would feel much better about having a completely different version every day.

2. Many students didn't communicate with me and showed up to class saying "I'm not going to take the test today." I'm not sure if they heard through the rumor mill that they could, or what.  My issue with this is:
-Students have had 6 class days to review and 6 school days to come in before school, at lunch, or after school to get help on the concepts they were struggling with.  No new content, just review.
-Many students did not ask a lot of questions during the review days even though (obviously) they had stuff they needed to ask about
-Several students really didn't think it was a big deal they weren't prepared and weren't focused during class.  I finally told one group, "If I showed up on the day of a test unprepared and chose not to take it, I would be working my butt off to practice, ask questions, and get ready.  I wouldn't want to fall behind."  I reminded them that they are going to be working double time doing the make-up work and the current work, and that I know what this class entails.. and "trust me, you don't want to fall behind, you will be stressed!"

3. What will I do with those students who just aren't "ever ready"?  Whether that be honestly, truly, they don't feel ready or they are just lazy and don't want to work at it?  I know I chose to this for this school year as a total experiment and really have no idea how it will all turn out, but I am concerned about that.


On another note, several students did not finish all the problems on the test in the given time.  I make my tests tough, but I truly believe that if a student is well-prepared, they should definitely finish the test.  I make the answer key and multiply that amount of time by 4.  If that is less than 54 minutes, then the students should have plenty of time.

So, for this exam, I allowed them to come back after school, or even tomorrow, to finish the test . However, when they continue to work on the test, they will be doing the remaining problems with "Version 2" instead of version 1.  (I just realized I had students come in after school to take version 2. Does that mean I need to give version 3 tomorrow morning and a version 4 tomorrow during class?!?! argh!)

So, one issue occurred that concerned me:
-Students circled problems they wanted to come back to work on that they actually tried halfway and got stuck on... assuming that what I said meant "It's okay go study and ask your friends, cram the info in, and then come back and finish the test."
I even had a student who left the difference quotient problems blank and was coming up after school to finish and I hear him right outside my door asking a student who is there what the difference quotient is and how to simplify it!

I had a student come after school and stayed for a full hour staring at four problems (all the same type) with no idea how to do them.  These problems were simple function transformations and should have taken him less than a minute apiece.  What do I tell that kid?  Take the low score and come back and retake it when you are ready?  Or, do I just not grade those problems and let him come redo those ones the next day?  Or ....?  I feel like this "test when you are ready" thing is making me re-consider and think through how I've done re-assessments in the past.  (My ultimate goal is that there won't need to be as many re-assessments!!)

I keep thinking in my head that "I just want you to prove it to me that you understand it", but since these kids are so well trained that it's all about the grade and it's all about the points, it's tough.  It's really about the learning, and the deep understanding.  All of these problems will show up again, either scaffolded into later material or just brought back up for review.  If they just cram it in now, they will have to re-learn it later.

Ok, so what's my take-away from Day 1?   I'm very interested to see how the kids that took the exam did.  I'm even more interested to see how these students who "don't feel ready today" do, and how soon they take it... and if they are going to be a problem in terms of internal motivation of getting the stuff completed.

I'm also wondering if I'm going to have to implement some sort of boundaries or guidelines for students who can't handle this type of freedom...

Have you instituted something similar to this?  If so, what has been your experience? What have you learned? What's worked? What hasn't?  What tips or advice would you give?

Idea from a colleague on Edmodo - thank you for the great idea, Mr. Szybisty!: 

Mr. Szybisty - Awesome idea! Here's one idea that could possibly help to answer some of your concerns. Have the students write an "action plan" while the other students take the test. The action plan would help the students reflect. Why am I not ready today? What will I do to get ready? Then, have the students set the date when they will retake it and have you approve it. This would help students to be more insightful, communicate better with you, and take responsibility because they set the test date. Let me know how you solve this problem!

Ms. Dieter - You could also have a certain deadline that they have to have completed the test and require that they give you the action plan before the day of the test. For example, if the test is Friday they have to give you their action plan on Thursday and then bring something to study on Friday while everyone else is taking the test.


  1. I think your idea is interesting. I've not done this with tests, but have allowed students to have some choices in how they learn certain materials, vocabulary words, and processes. When reading through your post, I was struck that it sounds like in order to give students all these option - you are doing a lot more work, and it sounds like most of the students who need that extra work are not holding up their end of the bargain and doing their work. I know you want it to be something helpful, but from your post, you have a lot of slackers who were trying to wait to see what other people did on the test or start the test and go ask for more answers that they didn't know. So, some of my ideas: have the action plan, but have it at the beginning of the unit. Have students plan how they will study and what helps they need. You can even have them re-evaluate partway through to see how they are doing and if they need to change their plan. But either way, they should know if they are going to take the test BEFORE the test day, and have to communicate it to you. I like the idea that they come retake tests on their own time. I would limit that to 1 or 2 sessions, and if you can't make it, too bad - take it on the test date. Actually, I'd make students all take it the first day, and then have the alternate sessions as retakes - because sure as you let them skip the test, something will come up and they won't make the second date, and it drags on and on. Our math department has some teachers that do standard based testing, which involves being able to come back in after school for tutoring and remediation and then retesting. There is a definite large group of students who take this as a chance to not be prepared the first time for the test, and will come remediate one problem per day - so like your kids - go learn the answer to one question or process, test on it, and then try another one another day. So, I've watched these math teachers - they are doing a lot of extra work and paperwork, and there's a big group of kids who are coming in and memorizing one question at a time, but probably not learning the process and so will not know it on the final exam. Not to be negative, because I've also worked with some remarkably mature students, and they have done awesome work. But, for me, the way to success involves clearly set out boundaries. I'd work to encourage students that they need to try to be ready on test day - that is the goal. Maybe some bonus questions if you take the test on test day and keep that score without remediating. Or, the penalty of having to take the test the first time, get it scored, do some remediation or practice, and then on their own time making it to one of the 2 alternate test makeup sessions. Anyway - good luck and keep us posted! :)

    1. Hi Miranda,
      Thanks for your comment and your thoughts!
      I like the idea of the action plan at the beginning of the unit and re-evaluating in the middle. They have their WSQ chart with dates that they have to keep up with, so that is sort of the "beginning" action plan for everyone.

      Your quote: "But either way, they should know if they are going to take the test BEFORE the test day, and have to communicate it to you. " - YES. I am going to start emphasizing this, in fact- starting tomorrow!

      I also like your idea of an incentive for taking it on test day, like the ability to do the bonus problems (i.e. they can't do them if they take it late) or something like that.

      This year is going to be about finding a balance between freedom and responsibility... thanks for chiming in :)

  2. I was going to suggest something like Mr. Szybisty, and I agree with Miranda on limiting the retake times/options so you're not making 70 versions of the test.

    I'll give the answer I've come up with to your #3" What will I do with those students who just aren't "ever ready"?" question.

    I haven't decided if I'll let them more generally work at their own pace until later in the year. For now, they are (supposed to be) all on track and I'm quizzing them at the same time. Though there are a chunk that aren't watching videos. But I'm giving them the option, at this time, to also take notes from the text or to take minimal notes because the whole first 2.5 chapters of Alg 2 is just Alg 1.

    But since I'm doing mastery grading, they won't get a passing grade unless they've mastered each little concept/concept group that I'm quizzing on. I have some that will really, really struggle with this because they've always just lumbered ahead. I'm already finding it rewarding because I'm getting people saying things like 'Oh, I never knew you had to divide ALL the terms' (putting standard form into slope-intercept). If making them work at this until they 'pass' means we can have THAT conversation and get them over that hump, it's worth it.

    Will they all pass? I wouldn't bet on it. But, I'm 100% confident (this third week of school) that they'll be better at math/algebra than when they came. And if they fail, they'll be much better prepared the next time around (or doing whatever they choose to do next).

    The conversations I've had with them, clearing up basic misunderstandings and filling in gaps is amazing. (Now I just need to get them talking to each other more.)

    1. Good idea with limiting the times they can make it up. Less craziness on my part. I don't mind making 2-3 versions of a test... but anything more than that is pure craziness.

      One idea that comes to mind is having the one test day... then having one day the next week for the "late testers" (keeping in mind they are still moving on with the current material = too much craziness??). Then having one final copy for later in the semester retakes. When it comes down to it, I guess I really don't need to have a completely different version every time, but I guess it's just that thing that we like to do.

      I do a half synchronous/half asynchronous class where I give them a proper pace and say "You can work ahead but don't fall behind". They are supposed to keep up with the pace of the class discussions. But, all assessments are done at their own pace when they are ready, including my mini-quizzes that sort of serve as a "mastery" system because they can't take the test until they've passed the quizzes.

      Looking forward to how this year turns out for both of us!

  3. This definitely way too much work for you. I've noticed that the more the teacher works, the less that students work (many of them). Remember that the goal is for them to become responsible for their own learning. Perhaps a clearer definition of what "responsible" is is required ( I just said "is is"!)

    the issue of time also rears its ugly head. Sure, mastery learning takes time, but to complete all the required topics, some deadlines will eventually have to be imposed. Is there a mid-term report? Are there uniform exams eventually? The idea of setting up a schedule for themselves becomes important.

    I disagree with the idea of stopping halfway through the test to be completed later. Requiring them to complete it in one sitting is not unreasonable. If they can't finish, they can write it again completely. Perhaps the second attempt at any test must be done at YOUR convenience (or inconvenience). Generally if I retest (which is rare), I count them both in a 30-70 ratio

    1. Thanks for your thoughts!

      Your quote "some deadlines will eventually have to be imposed" is a key point and important to remember. I was all over the "take it when you are ready" the first week of school that I don't think I structured it as well as I could have. Good thing there's plenty of time for tweaks!

      Also, I appreciate your feedback on "requiring them to complete it in one sitting is not unreasonable" and having to do the test all over again if they can't finish it. I have always struggled with "but she's a slow test-taker" on one hand with "if they really knew it to the depth and mastery they should know it, it should be easy". Then I end up feeling bad if a student gets a low score simply because they couldn't finish. I still don't know how to resolve that within myself, and that goes back to even beyond flipping times.

      I agree with you in that one of my goals over the last few years is "never work harder than your students" and I don't want to undo the work I've done in this area due to this "test when you are ready idea". It definitely needs more thought put into it.

      Isn't it amazing how we can think things through and think we have it figured out but once it gets put into action we realize how many tweaks it needs? :)

    2. re: the slow test takers

      As the year progresses, you those know who are slow and methodical test takers because they're slow and methodical people vs. those who sit and stare at the test and hope lightning strikes and the Distance Formula (or whatever) miraculously jumps into their head. This is definitely where dealing with students on an individual basis can help.

      And even sometimes, if there's one in working on something, asking them to verbally tell you the last one or two to speed it along. It's shocking to me how slowly some students write.

    3. Good point. That is what I usually end up doing but then sometimes I feel bad not offering that to all students. It goes back to knowing our individual students and who might need that extra support and who is just taking advantage of the time.

  4. I think it would be interesting if you had a discussion with your students as to why they chose to act the way they did. You could bring up many of your points that you shared in your post and ask for feedback. There have been many times when I didn't understand why my students were behaving or responding a certain way, but once they explained, we were able to move forward with mutual understanding.

    Instead of giving tests at the beginning of your experiment, perhaps you could have the kids take mini-quizzes to assess how they are doing. The "when you're ready" policy would still work, but you have a little less stress when it comes to creating new versions.

    Thank you so much for sharing your journey. It really is an inspiration as I gear up to try some new things with my students this year. Best wishes for an amazing year.

    1. Hi Julie,
      Great idea. I think I will have a discussion with the students tomorrow as they fill out their action plan.

      One thing I don't think I clarified in my post was this test was over their Summer Homework, so it wasn't actually material we covered in class. So, once we start the real units (Tuesday), they will have mini-quizzes to assess their progress that will be a great sign as to if they are ready for the test or not. That was probably a good point to make :)

      Thanks for reading and commenting. All of the ideas and sharing that come from all my readers are amazing and insightful! :)

  5. Maybe you could offer three (or whatever number you're comfortable with) test days. One in class, two after school (or during study however your schedule works). Give them the specific dates. Students know the days in advance so they can plan accordingly, and they should choose which test session they are attending prior to the first one. If they think they are going to need an extended amount of time to master the material they would choose the third test session. That way you could still approve students to take it, and the best choice would obviously be the in class day as its not on their time. You would only have to make a set number of tests. Students that don't finish in the first session can attend the second session (changing the tests as you do now) but will know that everything has to be completed by that last test session.

    I like your idea about making some kind of incentive for taking the test that first time. As for finishing tests on time, I feel each year I get more and more students that need multiple class periods to finish. I too was allowing them to come after school. However I think I'm doing them a disservice in the long run as things like the SAT or finals in college are timed tests so at some point we have to help them utilize time management skills during test sessions. I'm experimenting with at home tests this year so that element is not there, but towards the end of last year I was definitely being more stringent with finishing in class.

    I'm also doing "test when you are ready." Since I teach history however, my students primarily take essay based tests, which are far easier to make multiple versions of.

    Last year let students take the test whenever they wanted, they just had to let me know a day ahead of time so I could create the test. It worked for some, but it was madness for me, and actually detrimental to students who tended to procrastinate or needed firm guidelines. I think giving students the option to demonstrate their comprehension when they are ready is good, but I also think students (9th graders especially) need some kind of set deadline to keep them in check. Maybe giving them "options" just not unlimited ones would help to ease your workload a bit.

    Good luck! Let us know what you come up with! There are so many great responses to your post!

    1. I like your idea about having set test days, and as I've been mulling over it this weekend, that is where I am heading, I think. (Follow up post coming soon!) I think that is fair that students are still given that freedom, but yet it is more on MY TERMS and not on theirs making my life crazy. Especially at the beginning of year, I think students (of all ages) need structure and deadlines... otherwise they take advantage of the freedom like I saw many of my students do this week.

      I agree with the value of learning time management on tests. Students need to learn to be efficient. Whenever I make my answer keys, I time myself and multiply that times FOUR to "test" if it will be a good length for students. A test generally takes me 15 minutes max to take, meaning it should take students 60 minutes max, and our class periods are 54 minutes, so it is just about right.

  6. The idea of an action plan at the beginning is a great idea. I think that students that are involved in sports, after school jobs,or other extra curricular activities would benefit from considering their other obligations as they work toward their test.

    On the timing of tests, I have instituted a one class period completion time for all students except those with ieps whom I have come after school to finish the test in one sitting.

    1. One thing that I have done with students who typically take longer- or if I know that the test may take longer than the allotted time- is to hand the test to the students one page (or section) at a time. That way they have to finish each section at that particular setting, and if they have to come in to finish at a later date they have not seen the test questions ahead of time.


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