As most Radical readers know, I’ve spent the past eight days touring Denmark as a part of a program run by the Center for International Understanding—one of North Carolina’s most important professional development organizations for teachers.
While I completely enjoyed the opportunities that I had to learn more about the European Union and Denmark’s social welfare system—topics that are a part of the curriculum that I teach—my favorite experience of the entire week was observing two different students go through the only official examination that generations of Danish children have ever taken, which comes at the end of 10th grade.
Kind of geeky, huh? I mean who spends the better part of 8 days in a 1,000-year old land full of history, cultural geography and really good beer observing tenth grade final exams?!
The thing that drew me to the testing room—besides the fact that exams are public events that can be observed by anyone (including parents and community leaders) who asks for permission ahead of time—was that Denmark’s final exams are probably the most responsible system of student assessment that I’ve ever seen in action.
Here’s how they go:
- Classroom teachers put together a collection of readings and audio recordings related to content studied during the course of the school year. In the sessions that I observed—both English exams—there were packets of materials on 20 different topics ranging from racism and role models to terrorism and global warming.
- Also included was a list of related lessons that students had completed on the topic in their regular classes. These lists included things like articles read, videos watched, and seminars completed. While the supporting materials for each lesson were not included, these lists allowed students to dig into their background knowledge while attacking new texts.
- Each student arrived at a pre-scheduled time, entered the examination room and randomly selected a number corresponding to one of the predetermined topics. Then, he/she spent twenty minutes studying the new materials: taking notes, filling out reading guides, listening to recordings, and planning a personal response to the topic that they’d selected.
- After 20 minutes—a time period that was closely monitored—the student returned to the assessment room where his/her classroom teacher was waiting with a teacher of the same grade level from a school in a nearby town. The rest of the assessment consisted of an ongoing conversation between the student and the assessors about the topic selected.
- The assessors carefully listened to each student, looking for evidence of reflective thinking and for the ability to connect new texts to previous materials or experiences. While students did the majority of the talking during the 20-minute assessment period, both assessors asked prodding questions to challenge students and to test the depth of their knowledge about the topic selected.
- When the students finished working through their thoughts, they were asked to leave the examination room. Then, the assessors—guided by a predetermined rubric—engaged in a 10-minute conversation with one another to determine the student’s level of mastery.
- To ensure that final scores weren’t biased, the outside assessor—who had no relationship with the student being tested—took the lead in the conversation and in determining the score given, but both teachers interacted with each other and came to general consensus around each bullet point on the rubric. If there had been disagreement, the school principal would have been called in to determine a final score.
- Finally, the student returned to the room to receive feedback from both teachers. Suggestions for future work were offered, compliments were given, and the final score was awarded.
Kind of amazing, huh? And remember that until recently—Denmark has instituted a much smaller system of standardized testing within the last two years that is designed to give quick feedback to teachers, principals and parents—this was the only “end of grade exam” that Danish kids had to suffer through!
Quite honestly, my Danish friends who teach are completely shocked that we begin giving exams to students in third grade here in the States. They can’t understand what we think we can learn from tests that we can’t already learn from a teacher’s year-long observation of a student’s performance in the classroom.
Now, I could ramble on for hours about the pros and cons of the Danish system of assessment, but I’m interested in what you think. Let’s wrestle with this together in the comment section, huh?
Here are some questions to get the conversation started:
- What can we admire about Denmark’s system of assessing students?
- Are there parts of Denmark’s system of assessing students that you’re not sure are as responsible as they seem to be? Why?
- What can we admire about our own system of assessing student learning? (And there has to be something admirable—after all, Denmark has moved a bit in our direction!)
- What barriers might prevent American teachers from using the kinds of assessment practices that I saw in Denmark? Are these barriers worth trying to tackle?
I’m really looking forward to reading your thoughts on this one. I’m afraid I may have swallowed a bunch of Danish Kool-Aid in the last few days and I know that a good conversation will push my thinking deeper.
I need someone to help me remember that different isn’t always better—or to reinforce for me that in this case, it just might be!