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.

The Transparency Files: The OJCS Report Card Prototype

The season is upon us!  We are busily filling out report cards and eagerly preparing for parent-teacher conferences.  We are also continuing to innovate and to prototype, so it should be no surprise that a few changes to both are in store.

Let’s first talk about what will not be different about report cards and then what is different…

As we have discussed, the arc of our journey to reinvent and revitalize our school has begun to take shape.  Last year was about values.  We spent significant time clarifying our value proposition which is now expressed in our North Stars.  As we begin to live those values, we are spending this year focusing on strategy.  The strategies we put in place are designed to help bring us closer to our North Stars – they are how we bring “The OJCS Way” to life.  The “7 Habits Prototype” is a strategy that will help us create a community of kindness, drawing us closer to being a place where “each person is responsible one to the other” and where “we learn better together”.  Increased informal educational experiences like the “Middle School Retreat” are a strategy for infusing our community with “ruach”.  The use of Silvia Tolisano and the “Silvia Cohort” is a strategy.  Etc.

What we have launched our journey with, is time spent on the why and how of learning – what do we believe to be true about teaching and learning and what does that look like in a classroom or a school?  What we have not spent time on – nor will we in this year – is the what we are teaching (with the exceptions of Lower School Jewish Studies, which has a new curriculum and Middle School Jewish Studies, which has new benchmarks).  So the one thing that has not changed in our new report card prototype is the what.  You will find the exact same topics and subjects from last year.

Let’s focus on what is really the only meaningful change, the commentary.

Report cards are not the best place to summarize activities or curriculum.  For as long as we use the ministry standards as a floor for General Studies, we can provide parents with more detail than they would ever need about what we are teaching.  Furthermore, our handbooks, our website and classroom blogs provide parents with all the information about topics and activities they need to stay current.  And even if, with all that, there are some curricular highlights we want parents to have top of mind, we can share them at the Parent-Teacher Conferences.  Report cards, therefore, are a place for providing parents with meaningful feedback about their child’s growth.  We are looking for a “less is more” approach that breaks the commentary into two sections: “Feedback” and “Next Steps”.   This approach is a strategy for ensuring “a floor, but not a ceiling” for our students and to give them an opportunity “to own their own learning”.

Let’s give a few concrete examples:

Rachel has earned an “E” in Grade 2 Jewish Studies.

Feedback:
  • Rachel has excelled in her quizzes, homework and projects this term.  She consistently uses Hebrew in class and shows mastery over Jewish Studies content.
  • Rachel has a particular passion for Tefillah and frequently volunteers to serve as prayer-leader.
  • I’ve noticed that Rachel has some difficulty working in groups – when given the choice, she almost always prefers to work alone.
Next Steps:
  • I would like to see Rachel push herself even more with her conversational Hebrew.  I am going to create a Voicethread account for Rachel so that I can give her a few conversational prompts a week for her to orally respond to.
  • Next term, I am going to assign Rachel a few more complicated prayers that I know she is capable of learning.  
  • We are going to spend time next term skill-building around group learning so that Rachel can benefit from others and others can benefit from her.
 
Michael has earned a 65% in Grade 5 Language Arts.
 
Feedback:
  • Michael was benchmarked at a 4.2 (Grade 4, Two months) reading level on his last reading assessment.  This represents appropriate growth for Michael based on his end of Grade 4 assessment (4.0) and is consistent with his IEP.
  • Michael’s oral expression continues to surpass his written expression, but he is finding success with the voice-to-text accommodation we have made this year per his IEP.
  • I am concerned that based on his homework, quizzes, and tests – even with accommodations – that Michael is not putting in enough time at home to be as successful as he is capable of being.
Next Steps:
  • I would like to see Michael expand his reading repertoire to include more just-right books and more genres (he tends to stay with graphic novels).  This will help him continue to grow as a reader next term.
  • While we continue to make appropriate accommodations, I do want to see Michael take the next steps with his writing, which will focus on writing strong paragraphs, with a topic sentence and supporting sentences.  
  • I would like to work with you and Michael on establishing successful study habits at home so that he has every opportunity to present his best work.
Solomon has earned a 78% in Grade 7 Math.
 
Feedback:
  • Solomon received an 83% on his Unit Test, averages 74% on his quizzes and tests, and dutifully completes homework and participates in class.
  • I’ve noticed that Solomon’s written work doesn’t always reflect his ability to explain math concepts.  I have observed in class that he does not always check and recheck his work before turning in assignments and tests.
  • Solomon is having particular difficulty with multistep word problems.  He has the necessary computational skills, but sometimes cannot unpack word problems into their appropriate steps.
Next Steps:
  • I will encourage Solomon to employ new strategies for checking his work (such as putting a check mark next to each one he has rechecked) to ensure he is putting forth his best effort.
  • I am going to provide Solomon with individualized word problems this term – and will conference with him – to help him build skills.
  • Here is a link to a section of Kahn Academy that I encourage Solomon to visit if he is interested in pushing himself.  I believe Solomon has the ability to be an “A” student if he puts in the time!
Last thing…based on strong feedback we will be emailing report cards to parents on Friday, November 23rd.
The Bonus Middle School Parent-Teacher Conference Prototype

We are also very excited to introduce a new prototype for Middle School Parent-Teacher Conferences that we think will go a long way towards ensuring that these important conversations are aligned with our “North Stars”.  This new format will provide parents with meaningful and actionable feedback, and provide us with the same in terms of inviting valuable feedback from parents – all in the service of helping our students “own their learning” and that there be “a floor, but not a ceiling” for each student.

With a large number of middle school students and a fair number of middle school teachers, we are going to try to provide a larger window of time with a more strategic number of mutually selected teachers.  Instead of signing up for individual conversations with any or all teachers, we are going to be asking for parents to sign up for a 15-minute window and a request for one or two teachers they feel strongly need to be present.  Then we will meet as a full middle school faculty and assign teachers to each middle school conference, using parental request and who we believe to be important in the conversations that should happen to best support each child.

We are very excited about this change and the kinds of conversations we believe it will yield.  Please know that our parents are always welcome to schedule meetings with any and all of our teachers – before or after parent-teacher conferences.  If you have additional questions or concerns, you are encouraged to let us know!