Exam Evolution

Once upon a time all the high schools in our community – both public and private – gave formal exams in Grade 9.  And so it was not only natural, it was an advantage for students at OJCS to take a series of exams during the Grades 7 and 8 years.  It checked (at least) three meaningful boxes:

  1. Our students learned valuable note-taking, study and organizational skills by going through the process of preparing for an exam.
  2. Our school learned valuable information about what our students did (or didn’t) learn as they were preparing to exit OJCS.  Exams that were able to stretch back across grades allowed OJCS to know not just what students learned that trimester or year, but what they learned while at OJCS.
  3. Our students gained real-world experience that they could utilize in service of the exams they would be taking in Grade 9 (and beyond).

And then…say it with me…COVID.

And ever since, the public high schools have not offered exams in Grades 9 & 10 and do not seem to be on a path towards doing so again.  Private schools in our community do offer exams in Grade 9.   And to the degree that context matters, we did some digging and it is additionally true that other independent schools in our community do offer exams in Grade 8 (or even earlier) and so if that is the water we are swimming in, perhaps it is that simple.  But part of being “independent” is that we get to make the decision for ourselves, and so it begs the question about what ought we do at OJCS if one of our three boxes no longer applies?  Do the other two warrant the energy (and for some students the anxiety) for OJCS to continue to offer exams, and if so, in which grades and subjects?

Zooming out, there are lots of skills and experiences we teach and provide at OJCS that are not necessarily formally carried forward to high school.  I have learned this firsthand as a parent of two OJCS graduates, one now in university and one still in high school.  Those skills – whether they be technological, organizational, public speaking, self-advocacy and many others – may not have had direct application to this (high school) class or another, but have definitely served them well as students.  If we were deciding whether or not to use iPads, or host hackathons, or a million other things based on what will be true in public school in grade nine, we might as well be public school ourselves.  So we feel very comfortable suggesting that whether or not our graduates going on to public schools do or don’t have formal exams in grade nine, it ought not determine what we do.  So much for “Box #3”.

Boxes #1 & 2 still feel very valuable.  While always managing and paying attention to student anxiety and their version of “school/life balance” – and always honouring IEPs and Support Plans – we definitely believe that the process of preparing, studying and taking formal exams is a value add for our students as they prepare for the added rigours of high school.  Grit and resiliency can only come about through authentic experience; sometimes you have to be a little uncomfortable, suffer a little adversity, be a little anxious.  So there’s “Box #1”.

Box #2 is interesting and at least for this year (and likely next) determinative.  We have lots of opportunities to utilize external benchmarks and standardized testing to provide data on what students who are graduating OJCS have (and haven’t) learned.  We have the most data on Math and Language Arts by virtue of the CAT-4, Amplify, IXL, etc.  If we wanted to gather similar results for Social Studies and/or Science we could decide if and when to add those modules to our CAT-4.  The two places where we could benefit from better knowledge is in Jewish Studies and French.  We have made significant progress in knowing what is true in French with last year’s introduction of the DELF Exam, but it only targeted the highest achieving students.  No such external standard exists for Hebrew / Jewish Studies.

And so for all of the above reasons, here is what will be true this Spring at OJCS.  Students in Grade 8 will take two exams.  They will all take a Jewish Studies Final (which is completely consistent with past and present practice) and they will take either a French Final or the DELF (the “French Final” being an in-house exam offered at both the Core and Extended (if needed) levels).  We’ll see how that goes, check results, solicit feedback and make any adjustments if needed for future years.

And with this totally normal little blog post in the middle of what is still a very complicated world and time…Winter Break.  See you 2024.

Author: Jon Mitzmacher

Dr. Jon Mitzmacher is the Head of the Ottawa Jewish Community School. Jon is studying to be a rabbi at the Academy for Jewish Religion and is on the faculty of the Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI) as a mentor. He was most recently the VP of Innovation for Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools.  He is the former Executive Director of the Schechter Day School Network.  He is also the former head of the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School, a K-8 Solomon Schechter, located in Jacksonville, FL, and part of the Jacksonville Jewish Center.  He was the founding head of the Solomon Schechter Day School of Las Vegas.  Jon has worked in all aspects of Jewish Education from camping to congregations and everything in between.