Tuesday, March 17, 2009

TEST? Did somebody say we have to take a TEST?

This is a message for seniors....and for all those of you who eventually will be seniors:

You got an email from Associate Dean Virginia Mansfield-Richardson today, informing you that you will need to take a writing skills test before you graduate.

You're probably wondering what that's all about - right?

Let me explain:

Last year, Ithaca College underwent its ten-year Middle States Accreditation review; a group of faculty and administrators came to campus and spent several days reviewing the college's academic and administrative policies on everything from course scheduling to learning assessment.

The college is (of course) accredited, but the Middle States group said we need to do a better job tracking your learning in ways that are clear and measurable.

Over the past six or eight months, the department chairs have been working with me to develop a plan for doing that here in the Park School. We looked at the school's "learning objectives" -- what do we think all graduates of the Park School should know and be able to do? -- and then we figured out ways to evaluate whether you are, in fact, learning those things.

This year, we're looking at whether you have the basic writing skills you should have: that's the test (more on that in a minute).

We're also going to be evaluating particular writing assignments in particular courses to determine whether you're also critical thinkers at the levels we anticipate you will be.

And later this summer, a group of our alumni will spend an afternoon reviewing a collection of student work to determine whether that work meets the basic standards of professionalism.

The point of all this is that none of it is about any particular individual or student performance. It's about ALL of you and ALL of your collective abilities to write clearly, think critically and produce professional-quality work.

Remember those standardized tests you used to take in elementary and middle school? You got a grade on them, but what really mattered to your school is how the school *as a whole* performed on those tests.

That's what this kind of assessment is all about: the school as a whole. All of our students.

A few questions-and-answers [Editor's note 3/20/09: I've revised this in response to questions from several students, and a variety of conversations I've had over the past few days. I think they are more accurate and clear now]:

Q: Do you have to do this?

A: Well, "have to" is an interesting phrase. Let's say it would be incredibly helpful if you would.

Q: Really?

A: Yes, really. We've said it's a requirement, so that you understand that if you can't make it, you need to let us know that you can't.

Q: What does that mean? what if I don't?

A: We've asked that you contact me to let me know. That's not a punishment. It's a way of ensuring that I have a chance to explain why this is important and you have a chance to explain to me why you can't make it.

Q: Why should I do this?

A: You should do this because you care about the Park School. You want us to do a better job teaching students how to write. And you know that if the Park School gets better, your degree has more value.

Q: Can I flunk this test?

A: No, you can't flunk this test. THE RESULTS OF THIS TEST WILL HAVE NO IMPACT WHATSOEVER ON YOUR GRADES, YOUR CLASS RANK, YOUR GRADUATION, OR ANY OTHER ASPECT OF YOUR ACADEMIC RECORD. Again, it's not about your individual performance, except as that is part of the larger collection of data on ALL Park students' writing skills.

And besides, we would really really really appreciate your help on this one. We can't get better if we don't know how we're doing: we can't fix a problem until we know there is one.

When is the test being given?

We're in the process of adding several dates to make it more flexible for you. And we'll be providing pizza before the test so you can take a dinner break from your work and help us out.


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