Can you imagine getting burned, just handing back some papers?! Well, it can happen. I must be a really slow learner. In 2003 while in the Oden Forest I did learn a few things about handing back corrected exams, but it wasn't sufficient. Pressure, pressure, pressure. In grade 9 English they wrote their first exam the last Wednesday of August and I thought I had done the right thing giving them the exact same exam which had been used a few years earlier. How could I go wrong? I had the same grading criteria, had the exact results calculated by the previous teacher, etc. It seems I underestimated the tsunami of response. All things considered, I blew it. Corrections take hours and hours of painstaking effort. All words must be counted. By grade 9 students must "produce text". Just filling in blanks, marking true/false or circling a, b, or c just isn't good enough. Puzzling out what kind of an error could be significant. Is "a" in front of "apple" a spelling error (1/2 of a point) or a grammar error (1 point)? While most errors are grammatical in nature, they are subsequently to be labeled as to the kind of error: tense, word order, vocabulary, etc. Should I try to use German to describe the error and what symbol is used by language teachers for this purpose (a whole additional language for me to learn). All of this would be taken care of during the the first time through the exam. Then it needs to be reread for content, style and expression. But what perplexes me perhaps the most is what proportion of the total exam grade each of these represents. Judging content is fairly easy if you are just looking for the right answers to reading comprehension questions. But analysis of a poem is a whole different kettle of fish. So, after hours of careful analysis and hair-splitting, I thought I was ready to hand back the exams. But apparently I had skipped a step or two. I needed to have analyzed the grade distribution for the class and think about what would be appropriate for the class as an organism unto itself. And of course I should have run the whole thing by another English colleague before handing them back to the class. I expected a certain amount of restlessness but nothing like what actually came my way.
In my pre-Fulbright years of ignorant bliss I handed back my German and French tests at PHHS without a second thought, never really went over them, figuring the kids didn't really care and that was that. After Fulbright Year Number One I returned to San Diego with higher expectations of my American students and began posting a grade distribution on the board and going over the tests, section by section and taking questions. I even started insisting the students get their parents' signatures on the exam and bring them back to me as a homework assignment. I had heard that once kids got to high school parents never got to see any of their children's work anymore and that went over fairly well. So, I thought I was going to be ready for returning a test here this time, but I was so wrong. Yes, I got burned! The students were up on their feet comparing not only grades but every detail of my corrections. There was chaos. I figured I could keep some semblance of order if I refused to answer questions unless they remained in their seats. That worked for a little while. I was accused of saying something in English was wrong which their previous English teacher had said was right. I was accused of marking things wrong which they said were actually right in the Queen's English. One of the best students in the class attacked me from the get go saying I had been too hard on the whole class. I think it was the mathematical part of the calculations which made me the most nervous. You take the number of errors and multiply by 100 and then divide by the total number of words they produced. This is called the "error index". You then check on a special grid to see what grade that would translate into. Some of the error indices were so high that they went way off the chart. My next mistake was to give some "-'s" and "+'s" which only led to trouble down the road. I had students bringing me two exams with almost identical marks and talking me into removing a "-" here or there. It was frightening. I truly felt put upon. We really didn't even go over the exam questions. We spent the whole period haggling. I even forgot to tell them to write their corrections which is routine here. I was afraid to face them the next time we met and I was praying that the haggling was over.
Since that time, I have given, corrected and returned two more class sets of exams and it is getting better, believe me. In French, they are grade 7, so there is less language production and more straightforward right and wrong answers, although by no means, exact. I got tripped up when a bright little boy pointed out to me privately that there were more than one blank for some items and shouldn't I have perhaps given more points for those correct answers or taken off less for those errors. In the end I gave that boy a point which jumped his grade up a notch, but only if he swore to never tell a soul!! Then, to my chagrin, I discovered that an important verb was misspelled in the text of the exam and therefore misspelled by several students with justification, but by then I just couldn't see re-collecting all the exams and combing through them one more time. What a nightmare! By the time I handed back the essay exams written by the grade 11 English students, there was barely a whimper. I have two classes to go. They are both grade 8 English classes, one this week and one in three weeks, after the fall break. I find myself analyzing how I am going to correct the exams long before I have even designed them. I learned a huge amount observing a grade 6 teacher hand back her first set of exams. She was so poised, so sure of what she was doing. If only I could have a fraction of her aplomb! She had those little squirrels quiet, in their seats, writing their corrections without a peep and didn't take any of their questions until the bitter end. She made them go through the entire exam with her before she began passing the corrected papers back. She didn't put the grade distribution up until the very end. They are required to copy it down on their papers. Oh, I know how I will do it the next time. They say here that you should try to give an exam in each class before Fall Break. I have almost made it. Of course, who wants to spend their vacation correcting exams? Core subjects which include math, German and English meet more hours weekly and are required to give a specified number of exams per semester. All exams are logged into a central book located in the Teachers Room. No class (group of pupils) can be asked to take more than three tests per week. So you need to get your tests logged-in early on. A few of my tests were scheduled centrally because they are courses comprised of pupils drawn out of various classes. I know this may sound confusing indeed and of course I was a overwhelmed by it all in the beginning but there is a reason for it all. Kids take 11 different courses, some meeting more hours weekly than others. That is a lot to juggle. Most teachers teach 26 hours as well. Teachers are expected to teach grade 5 as well as grade 13 (college level). Fortunately the range I was given is only grade 7 to grade 11. German teachers must all have two subjects as well. Ask Flavia, my Fulbright partner. She has three!