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Cardboard Cutouts and Humanizing Assessment

For three years, Chris, a very thoughtful and committed science teacher, and I conducted an informal experiment during one of the most tense and stressful moments in a teen’s life, the Advanced Placement exam in Chemistry. Well known as one of the most difficult exams in the AP arsenal, students flocked to Chris’s class every year. Was he a terrific science teacher? Absolutely. Was the class considered incredibly challenging and all consuming? Absolutely. Your final grade could wreak havoc on your overall GPA if you were not in the game. Well planned, creative, organized, and supportive, Chris did everything possible to help students achieve.

He believed in an open admission policy. He insisted on no gates or roadblocks for enrollment into the class. There were no science prerequisites required, no entrance tests, no previous level of math acquisition or competency. Did students try the class and drop out? For sure. But Chris wanted the students to find this out for themselves. He wanted them to try and discover and come to conclusions about where they wanted to spend their time and energies. The door to his classroom was always wide open. Students just needed to walk in ready to put their best effort forward.

Chris’s sections of AP Chemistry were also an oddity in another way in that we always had more girls take the class than boys. AP chemistry, with its heavy emphasis on math skills, and with the science/pre pre med sensibility always tipped toward a heavier male enrollment. But not Chris’s class. Young women felt welcome and supported throughout the process. He was certainly passionate and excited in class about the study of science and learning in general; however, there was also this collaborative calm about him which engendered confidence and the sense that he and the students would get through this together. Chris was also 6 foot 8 inches tall.

Constantly bumping his head on hanging lamps and barely clearing door frames, he was thin like a reed, walking through the hallways smiling with abandon, with his thick English accent screaming, “hallo, how ARE you doing?” as he sauntered between classes to meetings to the faculty lounge. The boys had some strange understanding that because he was so tall, he must be good at basketball. Hated it. He played a little soccer, but most of the time he and his long legs were awkwardly slipping in and out of the chemicals room to prepare for his next lab or experiment.

After the AP exams every year, Chris would come to me in despair because, as with any semi-decent science geek, Chris broke down the results of the 20-30 students who had taken the AP Chem test that given year. He worked so hard with the young women, but every year they were always a tick below the boys and it bothered him to the point of distraction. Consistent with national statistics, his female students were doing as well or better than his male students in class, but the standardized testing environment, its pressures and triggers were knocking his female students off their game.

The emotional and biological interplay of school can be a great tool to support students or it can be used as a weapon to try and knock them down.

No matter how many practice tests he gave them or after school cram sessions, the results were basically the same.

“I’m too nice to them,” he would say. “They’re just too used to the support and it’s holding them back. I’m not tough enough.” I then looked up at his upset face, looked back at his classroom and tried to imagine what it must be like to be one of his students. There was always such joy and laughter, students couldn’t wait to come to his class every day, because of him. So, with that information, we decided to change the equation.

Assessments also bring into stark relief the types of thoughts and impressions students have about themselves. Do they feel like they know how to study? Do they know how to work hard? Can they focus? Can they do all of these things and; nevertheless, will anxiety take over and dominate their experience expressing what they know? As I mentioned earlier, the differences between the experiences of students taking high stakes standardized tests and what they do in school to demonstrate growth and learning can be like night and day. The emotional and biological interplay of school can be a great tool to support students or it can be used as a weapon to try and knock them down.

As with all standardized tests, there are rules. Who can take them, when they need to be administered, how students can take them, what they can have with them (materials) when they take them, what they can be doing before, during and after the exam and most importantly who is allowed to proctor the exam. As opposed to the SAT’s or ACT’s, individual schools are responsible for administering their own Advanced Placement tests with the one clear understanding that the teacher who taught the curriculum and course is not allowed to proctor her own exam. AP teachers pace anxiously outside their students’ testing environment wanting to know what was on the exam that year, how the students are feeling and if they are taking it seriously. Many AP teachers see it as just as much a test of their own abilities as what the students are able to achieve. Such tension of student accomplishment as defining success for teachers seems appropriate, some of it feels narcissistic and self important. Students are not natural extensions of us. They are their own emerging people. Most of the time, we are not really in control of their learning in the way we would like to believe. They are not input/output machines. But the influence, as we discussed earlier, of a professional, well trained and passionate teacher can make all the difference.

The social and emotional triggers that occur, both positive and negative, during the learning process are real. They embed themselves into our psychological and biological selves in profound ways.

Early that morning before any of the students had arrived for their AP Chem exam, Chris and I came down the steps of the school all kinds of excited. We were carrying a large piece of cardboard, him on one end and me on the other. It felt like we were pulling off some crazy high school prank. We walked into the massive space, two classrooms combined, that would be where the students took the test that day. In front of the classroom, we placed an enormous picture cut out of Chris, all 6 foot 8 inches of him, smiling with his giddy goofy grin and with one hand raised with a thumbs up. Chris quickly left the room and I waited for the students to pour into the class with expressions of anxiety and trepidation and exhaustion on their faces.

They did not notice the cut out at first, but then a few began to smile and laugh and started cracking jokes about the Hollywood-esque cut out of their teacher at the front of their room, eagerly cheering them on. The test began, and throughout, I observed students picking their heads up at certain moments and staring at Chris’s one dimensional face staring back at them. They would stare for a few moments and then get back to work. The students finished the exam and some of them came up to me and mentioned the cut out, but most were absorbed with talking about what was on the test and if they had answered the questions correctly. What was more stunning was the results we got back from the exam and for the next three years as well.

All of the students, on average, did better on the exam, with the largest gains coming from Chris’ female students. We would love to believe that learning is rather one dimensional, like that cutout of Chris at the front of the room. But Chris is not one dimensional and neither are his students. The social and emotional triggers that occur, both positive and negative, during the learning process are real. They embed themselves into our psychological and biological selves in profound ways. What Chris and I discovered was that Chris and AP Chemistry were deeply associated with one another for his students. Particularly for the girls, this association, the positive learning relationship that Chris had forged with his students mitigated many of the biases and stereotypical feelings that our students maintained walking into that rather cold and disassociated environment of standardized testing. Chris’ face was a reminder that they had worked hard, they had learned the material and ultimately could accomplish regardless of gender.

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Jason is flexible and attentive, yet remains committed to his high expectations of my work in tackling tough situations and tasks.  With a sense of humor and compassion for the rigor of a leadership position, he knows how to guide me with just the right amount of productive stress.  I appreciate that.

Daphne Orenshein - Elementary School Principal: Hillel Hebrew Academy

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