Sun Prairie School Board members who questioned district administrative team decisions to end “high stakes summative” semester and final exams on Monday, June 21 were cautioned to remember board governance procedures and reminded it was not an area over which the board could take action.

The questioning of administrators began during the board’s discussions surrounding the handling of COVID-19. Board member Alwyn Foster questioned the decision to end final exams, and heard more than he was expecting in response from Stephanie Leonard-Witte, the Sun Prairie Area School District Assistant Superintendent for Teaching, Learning & Equity.

“During COVID we said no finals, and now that we have built, I’ll say, better and more current assessment strategies, we just won’t be re-instituting finals as we move forward,” Leonard-Witte said.

“If you do an assessment of best practice — like what’s best for kids in learning — there is very little out there that would support final full summative assessments,” Leonard-Witte said.

“Best practice is that kids have assessment throughout the semester, throughout the quarter, that builds on itself. So they’re committing that knowledge more to, I would say, a working knowledge, as opposed to cramming for a test the night before,” Leonard-Witte added. “So I would say it’s a practice that’s been outdated for a bit and we’re taking the opportunity now to not reinstate something that isn’t supported as best practice in most of the research around assessment.”

Foster asked whether or not there would be finals then at the end of semesters instead of the end of the year, and was again told no.

“There will be summative assessments throughout the entire year. So we’ll have what we call formative assessments, so assessment for learning. You and I probably would have called that a quiz or a short answer to get out the door throughout the semester,” Leonard-Witte replied. “And then at the end of every unit, typically there’s a summative assessment. There will be no end of semester or end of year. So at the end of every unit . . . in Unit 2, you’ll assess Unit 2, and best practice is too go back and take a question from Unit 1, and include it on Unit 2. So that you’re kind of building that knowledge throughout the year.”

Foster asked what forms of input were gathered from students, staff or the community to base the decision on.

“During the pandemic, we did not, I’ll say, seek community input because we felt that was best for students — putting kids before content, not putting stress on students, specifically our historically marginalized students because we didn’t want to put them in a place of failing,” Leonard-Witte replied. “We did not seek broad community feedback in not reinstating them. We know it’s not best practice, we know it’s not good for our students, and so we just didn’t bring an antiquated practice back.”

Foster asked whether teachers were asked for input, and Leonard-Witte deferred to Sarah Chaja-Clardy, SPASD Director of Secondary Teaching, Learning & Equity.

“We did not closely explore the specific topic of final exams in that reconfiguration group,” Chaja-Clardy replied.

Board Clerk Carol Albright, who asked for the discussion of district handbooks to be moved on the meeting agenda to Matters Reserved for Board Action, explained why she took the action.

“This whole discussion about exams is one of the reasons I moved what I did,” Albright said, “and it was not pertaining to this topic right now. So I will have some comments and questions later.”

Handbooks OK’d on 5-1 board vote

During the board’s discussion of the handbooks, Albright again stated her case in favor of summative semester and final exams.

That’s because revisions were made to the Sun Prairie Area School District’s handbooks including the SP4K Family Handbook, Elementary Schools Student and Family Handbook, Patrick Marsh Middle School Student and Family Handbook, Prairie View Middle School Student and Family Handbook, Cardinal Heights Upper Middle School Student and Family Handbook, Sun Prairie High School Student and Family Handbook, Prairie Phoenix Academy Student and Family Handbook, Sun Prairie Virtual School Student and Family Handbook, 6th-8th Grade Extracurricular Rules and Regulations Handbook, and 9th-12th Grade Extracurricular Rules and Regulations Handbook.

According to the report to the board, the elementary handbook updates dates, schedules, and contact information. In addition, language changes have been made in order to reflect shortened arrival times prior to the school day and breakfast procedures initiated in the 2020-21 school year and continuing into the future. Further efforts will be made to review/revise the elementary handbook in order to remove references to illegal and/or criminal behavior in a handbook for young children and the schools that serve them.

The revised dress code policy has been included in all academic student and family handbooks. Police liaison officers will now be referred to as school resource officers (SRO) in the handbooks; In-School Suspension (ISS) will now be referred to as an Alternative Learning Environment (ALE).

In the extracurricular rules and regulations handbooks, spectator expectations have been updated. Since registration occurs through Infinite Campus, athletic forms have been migrated to Infinite Campus so families can sign documents electronically; the verbiage surrounding athletic forms has been updated.

And, final exam verbiage was removed from the Cardinal Heights Upper Middle School and Sun Prairie High School handbooks.

According to the report, for the past three semesters, “we have moved away from final exams at Cardinal Heights and the High School due to the pandemic. Instead of culminating final exams, we have used end of unit assessments throughout our quarters and semesters to determine student learning, growth, and proficiency. In doing so, we have learned that students are able to demonstrate their understanding just as well through periodic assessments throughout their courses. Students may continue to engage in end of course projects to demonstrate the totality of learning across a class, but we will not resume the end of semester final exams or exam days/weeks in the upcoming year,” the report to the board reads.

Albright has been cautioned before about differing with administrative actions. After previous statements opposing administrative actions, Albright was cautioned by the board’s Governance Officer to refer to any statements made as being in her own personal opinion.

Before stating her opinion, Albright asked if teachers will be able to give semester exams or a final exam and will it be supported by administration.

Superintendent Brad Saron cited board governance in referring to the handbooks as an item not governed by board action, and reminded the board of its goals, especially relating to equity, when considering exams for students.

“These are not a matter reserved for board action. So this is information so . . . it’s a little bit interesting because we are just coming off a unanimous vote to not support high stakes standardized testing too, and semester exams are like a form of high stakes standardized testing,” Saron said, referring to a previously approved resolution opposing high stakes tests but mostly those administered or required by the state to measure comprehension in different areas. “So, I’m glad we have like the opportunity to talk about it here because there is a bit of discussion behind it.

“I understand, like, the traditional attachment to sort of like this concept of like formal finals,” Saron said. “But we should all like get on the same page with it because it’s obvious that people have some questions about it . . . and that way we can talk about it.”

During another point in his response to Albright, Saron said it’s “really tough for some kids, especially kids that are not like growing up with the support and structure around them to make sure they are following up on the studying required to cram before that final and to go back to all of those unit tests and figure out like how to get all that information together . . . it is an inequitable obstacle that is in place that is resulting in some of our kids doing well on their semester tests . . . I would say when kids are in a duplicative way, taking unit tests throughout the entire semester, they have already shown us in many instances that they can prove they meet the standard throughout the entire semester,” Saron said. “And then having them take another test at the end to prove again what they’ve already proven throughout the entire year is just hard for us in terms of like in a scaled way across the entire district . . .”

“And we have a certain percentage of kids that when they face a high stakes test, they have anxiety,” Saron said. “Or they have some sort of mental health block where they begin to have a problem, like, proving again that they’ve already fulfilled that requirement that they’ve taken throughout the entire semester in unit tests.

“So I would just say I understand that there’s like almost a traditional attachment to this concept of finals. And with the work that Sarah Chaja-Clardy is doing for equity in grading, and also that what we learned coming out of the pandemic — that being able to prove standards in a very streamlined way and it’s not at the expense of some sort of final, it’s something that we learned that we should seed into subsequent years because it did work for students,” Saron said. “And it wasn’t an obstacle for some of our kids to have like that next final.

“I’m glad that we’re talking about this at this point because . . . what I’m thinking here is it’s to make sure that our assessments are focused on being personalized and are aligned to our vision which is relevance, engagement and innovation. That’s what our vision says. And at this point, finals don’t match, even though there are some people who have an attachment to finals, I don’t think it’s appropriate for kids.”

“And so it’s in that category of something we learned during the pandemic that I think we should probably apply to future years,” Saron said. “And that’s what these reflect.”

Albright said, speaking as an individual, she believed semester exams were valuable.

“Again, speaking as an individual, I think we had a system in place where if you had done sufficiently well on all your unit tests, you could opt out of the semester exam,” Albright said.

“However, some students used it to improve their grade. Now again, the semester exams were never a one grade issue. And I would disagree with doing that in the high school. But I think eliminating semester exams totally is not the way to go. They will be taking cumulative exams. You skip from high school to the world of work, but in college they will be taking semester or quarterly exams, depending on what subjects they take. And in foreign language and in a lot of areas that is still the case.

“But you can’t shake your head, because professors at all kinds of universities all over. You don’t know,” Albright said. “So speaking as an individual, I don’t think this is a good idea, but I’ve told you why, and that’s the end of that for me.”

Saron replied.

“Fair points. And I think right now, universities are moving away from high stakes testing which was acknowledged also in your board resolution. There’s a real movement to acknowledge at universities that many high stakes test like that are inequitable in their nature,” Saron said.

“Not only entry tests, but also in the way they are .. . . at the end of the semester when they are trying to get kids to prove they know something they’ve already taken all of those unit tests and proven that they know something along the way,” Saron said. “You do see universities starting to phase those out, especially polytech universities where it is much more hands on and more project based, which is more characteristic of the workforce.”

“That’s why, in my opinion, I would like teachers to have the option to give a semester exam if in their area it is appropriate,” Albright replied.

Saron said the test could be a final unit test but not for the entire semester.

“In some areas you can’t take a test unless you know everything,” Albright replied.

Saron agreed, pointing to subject areas like math or foreign language.

Board President Steve Schroeder said he appreciated Albright speaking her piece. “I think we could be here until the cows come home talking about the pros and cons of this and we probably all have different opinions,” the board president added, calling the ending of final and semester summative exams as “a bold move.”

Student Board Member Carson Schmoldt said a lot of his peers and even he and fellow student board member Sarah Rhoads discussed the ending of final and semester summative exams.

“Even this year alone,” Schmoldt said, “I saw a lot of stress go away with having that final requirement removed.”

Foster said some of the discussion occurred not because the decision was made, but the lack of discussion before it was made quickly in consideration of marginalized student populations.

Board member Caren Diedrich said she graduated from high school in 1962 without high pressure exams and attended college where finals were given. “We just were floored by the pressure of finals . . . since none of us had had finals,” Diedrich said.

Diedrich asked what other school districts are doing, and whether Sun Prairie kids not exposed to summative semester and final exams will be given any instruction on how to take them after high school.

Leonard-Witte said she was not sure where other school districts are in terms of the change in the exam policy. She also said she has heard “if you can Google it, you shouldn’t test it.”

“I generally agree with the direction that you guys have recommended us going in,” remarked Board Governance Officer Tom Weber. But he also reminded the board that it could discuss this when the board discusses Student Response (SR) policies. “We do like to have the conversation,” Weber said, “and I’m sure we’ll have more as we talk about our SR policies.”

Albright asked if a teacher gives a semester exam if they can continue to do it.

“I think the short answer is no, we will not be having semester exams,” Leonard-Witte replied.

The board approved the handbook changes on a 5-1 vote, with Albright voting no and Board Treasurer Dave Hoekstra absent.

At the end of the meeting, during the board debriefing about how the meeting went, Weber cited board governance and cautioned the board about its role versus the role of the administration.

“I want us to caution ourselves against voting no against something,” Weber said, “that is outside of our board role.”

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