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Topic: tests - how tough?
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Posts: 414
Registered: 12/6/04
tests - how tough?
Posted: Jul 13, 1998 9:45 AM
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In a message dated 98-07-09 Sheila King advised a new AP teacher who asked how
hard to make tests:

>Make your tests hard. OK, I should qualify that. Put some
>reasonable/medium/easy questions on the test, but also put one or two of
>the difficulty level of AP questions.
>I also try to never include a question that doesn't require some amount
>of thinking. Anything that can be done automatically, by rote, is not a
>very good question.

I agree completely - we must ask the challenging questions! Here's what I do
for quizzes and tests (yes, I use alterante accessment techniques too, but I'm
not addressing that here):
All classes at our school are supposed to use a 90-80-70-65 scoring scale on
all quizzes and tests but I can't ask the types of questions we're talking
about with this scale. So, I petitioned for, and won, approval to
significantly widen the scale for AP Calc. tests - much closer to what the May
exam will use. Why must we confine ourselves to the top 10 - 20 points of the
percentage scale? A wider scale allows me to challenge the students with much
more interesting (i.e. difficult) questions without "sacrificing their grade"
and stressing them out. It doesn't change the letter grades - this is not
"inflation" as long as the test content is appropriate to the scale. It
gives them more room for improvement, the test becomes an additional learning
tool (and they're always cumulative from day 1), and it helps students
acclimate to a higher level of difficulty. I don't advise making all
questions challenging however. My tests have a varitey of material - from
easy to tough, objective (adjusted for guessing) and free response. This is
NOT to be confused with a "curve" - I do not curve. The scale is announced
BEFORE the test. I use the same one all year long - seems less arbitrary this
way but to each his own.

In terms of quizzes during each chapter, I usually give two kinds: take-home
(mostly hard questions but I do use the 90-80-etc scale here since
_everything_ except another person is at their disposal) and the 10-20 minute
easy in-class kind (also 90-80-etc) to make sure they have command of the
necessary rote mechanics, formulas, etc. There's very little creative
thinking or need for justification on the short in-class quizzes. All of that
"cool meaty stuff" is saved for the take-homes which students say take them
from 1.5 to 3 hours to complete (I always think it should be less). If they
have a time conflict that night, they just need to explain this to me and I
usually grant more days - I'm more interested in quality here, not quickness).
Students tell me this is more effective than studying before a quiz and as
much as they groan about them during the year, at the end they always
recommend I keep using them. It frees up class time, allows assessment of
more than just a sampling of the topics covered, gives an occasional venue for
students who have "time anxiety", and is a great learning tool - instead of
just leaving a problem blank because they don't see their way through it in
time, they keep working at it. Also, since they've put more time into it and
written each problem at least twice - once until they're happy with it and
then the final "clean" copy to turn in - they seem to have better retention.
The major drawback for the teacher however, is that take-homes are extremely
time-consuming to correct. (By the way, my tests are never take-homes.)

Audrey Weeks
Southern California

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