George Mason High School is in the middle of an identity crisis, and students are suffering the consequences.
As part of a long-term effort to modernize the grading system, GMHS administrators have initiated a plan to greatly reduce testing: get rid of Midterm exam week.
“We’re looking at assessment differently,” said Principal Matt Hills. “We’ve had this 40/40/20 model for the last 25-plus years and when you think about the grading system and how it’s evolved, it’s really archaic. You think about high stakes tests and what 20% really means, and what we wanted to do was think differently.”
The 40/40/20 model refers to how semester grades have traditionally been weighted at George Mason: 40% based on performance in each quarter, and 20% based on exam performance. Mr. Hills and other administrators are now working towards a “different criterion reference model,” that assesses “how far students have come” verses “what they did on week one.”
“It’s the beginning process of saying: You know what, the archaic semester exam schedule needs to be removed,” said Mr. Hills.
But just because the school system eliminated the dedicated week for midterm exams, doesn’t mean teachers eliminated the tests.
Students told the Lasso that many, if not most, of their classes were still holding midterm exams, with some of them worth as high as 20 percent of their semester grade.
“I still had five exams, even though we were supposed to be getting fewer this year,” said junior IB diploma candidate, Rachel Danckaert.
“Almost every class gave me an exam, and those that didn’t, gave me big tests. It’s been all tests, all the time, for a couple of weeks now,” said junior Elijah Hoofnagle. “Most of them were weighted at 20 percent.”
“It was Midterm week and now it’s Midterm month,” said freshman Audrey DuBois.
The Lasso also spoke to a number of teachers about how their testing plans were affected by the policy change. Most said that they either kept exams for their courses, or modified them slightly to fit time constraints.
It appears that the perspectives of teachers and administrators are currently irreconcilable. While administrators seek to incentivize meaningful changes to a grade-based curriculum model, teachers are responsible for student performance in the interim.
Even if teachers oppose the stress associated with heavily weighted exams, they still must ensure their students meet current benchmarks. And this is only possible with summative testing.
As a result, students are now forced to take the same exams as previous years, but without the short day schedule, a schedule students have relied on in the past to study, rest, and recuperate.
“Not having those days shortened has definitely made me more stressed out,” said sophomore Ella Reithinger. “The administration has expected teachers to change their curriculums because they made Midterms optional, but teachers are like ‘no, it’s part of our curriculum,’ so they’re not optional. Now we just have Midterms without Midterm week, and that’s just stupid.”
This begs the question: how could the administration make a decision with the intention of helping students that draws such widespread criticism from the student body?
It seems that part of the answer is administrators feel students and teachers’ heightened stress is an unfortunate consequence of their long term goal to reduce testing.
“Any change takes a good three to five years and this is the beginning process,” said Mr. Hills.
While The Lasso commends the attempts of administrators to rethink the grading system, the decision should have been made with the assurance that testing would be eliminated, or greatly reduced. Students, regardless of whether they are pursuing the rigorous IB diploma or not, are still feeling the stress of midterms, without the time off from their other classes afforded by the midterm week.
The elimination of testing week has also adversely affected students with learning disabilities, many of whom require extra time or an alternate schedule to complete their tests. The absence of a blocked schedule for testing means that students who take longer than the typical ninety minutes must find time during other classes to complete their Midterms.
The middle ground seems obvious. The administration should continue to research and pursue assessment reform, and students keep Midterm week until such changes are finalized. They don’t have to be contradictory.
Even now, teachers are organizing their courses for future semesters. They will need to know if administrators will allot designated time for future exams. For the sake of the student body, the Lasso strongly urges that they do.