Monday, April 3, 2006

Exam Angst Starts Early

And I don’t mean in March as opposed to May, I mean in third grade as opposed to law school.

Last week my nine-year-old took her reading MCAS (Massachusetts Cruddy and Stupid, I mean: Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment Scale) exams, and she was truly worried about it. She was afraid these exams would define her forever as either smart or not. I tried to re-assure her that this was not accurate; after all it is my job to tell (relative) grown-ups this everyday.

She didn’t buy it.

I explained that this is more a test of how well the school and her teacher are doing in the business of third grade teaching. She didn’t buy that either. I have to wonder, if I can’t convince a nine-year-old, are any of my law students reassured by anything I say? I’ve always thought that people found me believable, or at the very least harmless (for example: people ask me for directions at least twice a day no matter what city, town or country I am in!).

I find I say the same things in different ways for different students, but basically my message remains the same: exams are an indication of how well you answered a certain set of questions on one particular day out of your whole life. And while how you do on this limited assessment is important, it should not be all defining.

Which is not to say that you should not be prepared for exams: they are not, after all, random. Students need to attend class, outline in some way, and study effectively and efficiently for these exams. Students also need to know what is expected of them on exams: not the actual subject matter per question, but the level of depth required in answering each question. Our doctrinal professors do give out this information but a number of students do not engage in this highly important dialogue until after the grading is done. A number of professors offer to give students prior exam questions and then give feedback on how the student answered the question.

This is law school gold and yet students rarely partake of the riches offered. Why? I’m still not sure. A student’s imagined exam must be far worse than the real exam but, for some reason, not being surprised by the format or the way the questions are asked is not a priority for many students.  I am baffled by this because the way our school prepared the third graders for the MCAS was to have them do sample questions from prior tests. This seems to be tested and proven technology for exam readiness. So, as we ease into the lovely spring days of April, I will be chanting, “old exams, old exams, old exams” in the halls here.

In the end I reassured my daughter that she was prepared because she had practiced similar questions for weeks and done well on those. This, I think she bought, because during the three days of testing her only comment was that she was excited that they recess twice a day on MCAS days and that was “cool.” And if you are ever lost in Boston (or anywhere else), come and find me and while I may not be able to help you find your way, you will be in no danger whatsoever. (ezs)

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