County’s exam policy proposal hits snag

Published 7:11 pm Tuesday, October 17, 2017

By Ryan Kushner

Staff writer

Isle of Wight County schools Superintendent James Thornton wants to allow the completion of a class project to be eligible to count as a “final exam” for high school students.

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However, a School Board policy that permits students to be exempt from final exams under certain circumstances prevents it, mandating that there be an exam that students can be exempt from, according to Thornton.

To overcome the roadblock, the division’s staff submitted a proposal to change the terminology of the existing “exam exemption” policy to instead be called a “culminating activity” policy. {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

In a rare show of disagreement with Thornton, however, the revision to the policy was tabled by the School Board at its meeting Thursday, Oct. 12, following a vigorous debate that ultimately found the alteration would have weightier implications, and is in need of more discussion.

The proposed change to the policy was mostly semantics, according to Thornton, but would allow a teacher more autonomy to choose to have a long-term class project count as the course’s final exam, further cementing project-based learning into the division’s modus operandi.

“This is a very hot topic with huge implications for our kids and our teachers,” said Smithfield District School Board representative Kirstin Cook.

The terminology change was suggested after the division modified its high school grading procedure regulations, dispensing with having weighted “final exams” in classes.

Instead, students’ quarterly grades would be determined by Mastery (50 percent), Growth (40 percent) and Practice (10 percent).

“Mastery” may include tests, projects and midterm assessments, while “Growth” would be a culmination of quiz and classwork grades. “Practice” would include grading for homework and class participation, according to the new regulation.

For a final grade, the two quarterly grades would be combined to count for 85 percent, while a “final activity” would be measured at 15 percent of the student’s overall grade.

Previously, the quarterly grades counted as 80 percent, with the examination grade counting for 20 percent of the final grade.

Thornton said his staff had been plowing ahead with the grading regulation fix, and hadn’t realized it might conflict with the School Board’s exam exemption policy.

The school division had already sent a notice to parents of the impending change to the exam exemption policy, noting that it would be up to the School Board to finalize it.

The current policy (IKGA) allows students taking SOL tests, industry certification tests or Advanced Placement exams to be exempt from a class’s final examination. Students with high cumulative course averages and few absences also have the option of avoiding a final examination, according to the policy.

Members of the School Board have championed Thornton’s vision for the school division, proclaiming a unity of goals when it comes to deeper learning, and the decision to table the name change of the exam exemption policy was not necessarily in discord with that.

Indeed, most members made a point to stress at the meeting that they are in support of adding more leeway for teachers when it comes to exams, but that the proposed changes presented some concerns.

Echoing an earlier statement from Cook, Carrsville District School Board member Jackie Carr said that, to her, “exam” and “culminating activity” were completely different things.

“The two have totally different purposes,” she said.

Newport District School Board member Vicky Hulick said she had a problem with changing the name of a policy in the middle of the semester.

“We need to work on our timing,” Hulick said, adding that as a parent, she would be unhappy with the sudden change.

A question raised by from Board members was how can a student be exempt from a “culminating activity” when the activity began days, weeks or months in advance?

Thornton acknowledged the conundrum. He said that staff intended to examine the exemption policy further in the near future.

“The only way that we can have a project count [as a final exam], is if we do away with exemptions,” he said. “Period.”

Hulick said she wanted the policy to have more consideration before making small changes.

“I want to do one correct policy … not fifteen different edits,” she said.

Thornton told the Board that by not adopting the changes to the exam exemption policy in front of them, the message the division was sending was that teachers cannot have a project as a final exam. Board members refuted the statement, saying the delay was not intended to tie teachers’ hands.

Cook noted that there’s nothing that says a teacher must give a “traditional” final exam.

The Board agreed to pull the policy out of those up for approval at the meeting.

Carr suggested that, next time, the division allow subjects to go to the Board before sending notices to parents in the division.

“It just brings confusion,” said Carr. “ … We should have done this before sending the message to the parents.”  {/mprestriction}