In the final week of the past semester, the dreaded period of blackout began just as students sat down to take their exams. This term refers to students being cut off from PowerSchool while teachers finalize grades, leaving us wondering what additions and omissions are playing with our averages behind closed doors. One topic of confusion (and debate) concerned teachers’ unique quiz policies and their impact on final grades.
Before the 2017-2018 school year, students’ quizzes in many math courses would automatically be exempted if they subsequently scored higher on tests. However, as of the beginning of the current school year, the high school math department has introduced a new policy that exempts a maximum of two quiz grades per semester. There is no doubt that this has stirred concern and panic amongst the students of SAS. As the marking period came to a close, discussions of the new quiz policy started to sound more like our initial response to the House system or AT courses: “It’s so unfair.”
However, it would not be fair for me to discuss this policy without first addressing why the math department implemented it. There must be a clear and logical explanation, right?
Why It Started
Mr. Murgatroyd, a Geometry and Precalculus teacher at SAS, states that the primary goal for this new approach is to “try to get students to engage with their learning at a much earlier stage so that the teachers had opportunities to intervene.” When asked how he thinks the policy benefits students, he answered by listing three specific consequences the math department noticed before the change:
According to Mr. Murgatroyd, “students seemed to be “blowing off the quizzes… so by not preparing for them, they missed opportunities to get meaningful and accurate feedback on what they could already do and understand.”
- High stakes testing, adding to pressure
For students ignoring both of the quizzes, “by the time they engaged with the learning process which seemed to be when they got their second quiz back (on the review day), they had very little time in which to learn the material; there was high stakes pressure because of high stakes testing.”
- Less time for teachers to intervene with students who need help with understanding.
At this late stage, the teacher’s ability to intervene would be very limited: “all we have is one class block and possibly an after school help session.”
In addition to all three of these spin-offs, “students also had lower level self-engagement on the day-to-day lessons. It was less important for them to understand ‘now’ because they were just delaying the need to understand until just before the test.”
“Flaws” of the Policy
Having Other Classes
So now that we understand the reasoning and main objective of this policy, it’s important to recognize some of the flaws in these points. In regards to the shared view amongst teachers that students engage in “last minute studying” for the once exemptible quizzes, teachers have to recognize math isn’t the only class we’re taking. It is unfair to hold this against students who along with their Pre-Calc or Alg II/Trig class, may be taking AP World, AP Chem, AP Lang, Studio Art, and Chinese. It’s impossible for us to study as much as we would like to for certain quizzes when we may be drowning in three or four other classes.
A couple weeks ago, I sent out a survey to get some insight into how SAS high school students feel about this new rule. I was able to gather information from a large group of students across different grades in different math courses:
Though I recognize the 230 students who responded to this survey may not be an accurate representation of the whole high school, it certainly gives us a bit more insight into the minds of the majority of HS students on this policy.
When asked how much students actually studied for quizzes before the change and a reason for their answer, one student responded “I had other summative quizzes and tests in other classes to study for. I can’t devote my time to studying for the math quizzes all the time.” Another anonymous student answered that it was because they believed “quizzes are supposed to give formative feedback, not added stress,” and noted how a student can’t “prioritize math over every other subject when they have other things to do.” Truthfully, no student would want to do poorly on a quiz. It’s just a matter of not being able to always prioritize math over other classes. And sometimes it’s slightly unfair to hold one or more poor quiz grades accountable to come to the conclusion that students simply didn’t feel like studying for them.
In the rest of the survey, students were asked to answer truthfully how much they studied for the quizzes before the policy existed. Out of the 230 responses, only 9 students (4.6%) chose “None. I didn’t care” and the remaining 118 and 68 students chose the option “I studied a lot; I wanted to do well” and “I studied a little bit”, respectively. And when asked in the following question why they chose the previous answer, a majority of students responded that they were “taking it seriously because it was good practice for the tests,” to “wanting to do well…because I care and my grades are important to me.”
When asked about the extent to which they believed the math department’s reasoning that past students crammed studying, 101 students (54%) answered “Not at all…if I don’t do well on the quizzes, it’s not because I didn’t study” and the minority of 11 students chose the answer choice, “A lot. I didn’t really care about the quizzes.” However, a large group of students (72, or 38.5%) also answered: “a little,” admitting to there being “less pressure” for preparation for the quizzes before the new policy.
In an interview with Yasmine Subawalla, a junior taking AP Calc AB this year, she summed up the effectiveness of the new policy as follows:
“I remember when my friends and I were in the same class last year… we would get together the night before the quiz and just review. Even then, we were fairly stressed about how we would do in quizzes. But now, I’m just hearing other students falling apart because of that.”
—Yasmine Subawalla, SAS junior
At a school like SAS, where there is already an underlying competitive nature, stress already disperses for students from the very pit of grades and wanting to excel in certain classes. To say that students don’t study and care for their quiz grades in a place like SAS seems to be contradictory.
Understanding of the Concepts
So for most students, it seems that the amount of studying wasn’t quite the problem. But then, what was? Looking at the charts below, it was clear that a large majority of high school students would do better on their tests than their quizzes. A total of 185 students (96.4%) would either “always” or “sometimes” do better on their quizzes, with a very small minority of 7 students (3.6%), “never” doing as well on the tests than the quizzes.
So yes, I do give the math department the benefit of the doubt that there may be exceptions. It is possible that students didn’t study for the quizzes as much as the tests, causing them to, consequently, do better on the tests. However, when people who didn’t do well on their quizzes were asked “why,” a large group (56.5%) answered: “I study for them, but I don’t really understand the material.” The remaining 25.5% and 17.8% either said “I don’t. I do well on my quizzes.” or “I don’t really study for them,” respectively.
Students may be doing better on the tests than quizzes, raising suspicion in teachers that they didn’t study the content and prepare for the unit until the test. However, the two quizzes are supposed to be the first two formative assessments of a unit – when they see where they are and how much they understand. It is obvious that they wouldn’t do as well on the quizzes than the tests even if they thought they understood the material.
However, there are students like Senior Faisal Halabeya, taking AP Calc BC this year, who argued that this new approach brings more to the table for students of SAS:
“It may be an unpopular opinion, not having quiz exemption policies, but people tend to leave things to the last minute. Like if you see F, F, A+, there’s something weird going on there. I think it encourages consistent effort, necessary for the nature of math.”
Mr. Murgatroyd elaborated on the source of student irritation with the new policy: “a lot of this comes from the fact that this is the first year of the change so they feel like something’s been taken away from them, which I understand.”
“But I think every time there is a change, there is a sense of loss, or it’s now become “unfair,” allowing them a bit more flexibility. But it’s hard for them to see the cost of that flexibility, so there is that element.”
—Lance Murgatroyd, SAS Geometry and Precalculus teacher
So now what?
I’m not asking anyone to bring back the previous policy (regardless of the large number of people who requested to bring it back). I’m just asking the math department and the whole school in general to at least to think a bit more carefully before making changes, such as this new policy for the sake of “helping” struggling students. As one senior student (who preferred to remain anonymous) said in an interview: “I think there is a good and bad in every change. I think people are very resistant to change in the beginning but then usually they forget what it used to be like. For example, with the House system, when juniors and seniors are gone, people are probably going to like the House system more. Same with Catalyst. Seniors were very resistant when they found out it was going to be required, but I’m sure the freshman are going to care less because it’s the only thing they’ve ever known.”