Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Day -04 "In the trenches" (Round II edition)

Countdown continues: T-minus 4 work days to first class. Today continued the ramp-up from yesterday (first faculty meeting, introducing new faculty, current [tough] fiscal status, policies, update on fundraising): today was music history placement exams for entering graduate students: 3 hours in a room, exam including short ID's, listening excerpts, score excerpts, score analysis, and a short essay. Then a cross-college picnic at a local park, in the miraculously balmy (as opposed to baking) August evening. Best part of the picnic: getting to meet everybody's dog--how cool is that?

Placement exams are essential, unavoidable, and fraught. My concept for writing, administering, grading, and acting upon the results is shaped by the experience that Dharmonia and I had at Indiana: where (in the bad old days) they'd tell you your MM would be done in 2 years of coursework and the Ph.D. in 3, without telling you that the entering-grad placement exams were intentionally made so insanely difficult that almost everybody had another semester--or another year--of remedial coursework slapped on top of the estimate. It made IU a lot of money, and it was blindingly traumatic--and economically scary--for the impacted grads. I thought it sucked then and I think so now, and I won't permit it to happen to the kids here.

But, on the other hand, our intake is such that in a given entering class, there may well be people who are excellent players, good candidates, nice people, but whose academic preparation in one or another area (typically, music theory or music history) is not adequate for them to succeed without remediation. My spiel for the opening of the exam session always begins with me saying "I'm here to administer the exam because I wrote it, I'll grade it, and I'll write the exit qualifying exam you take in 2 or 3 years from now. Our job in this exam is to get an accurate diagnosis of where you're at, so that we--and you--know what you need to do over that period of time."

When I came here, there was no history placement exam, no way of knowing the candidates' skills or preparation--and we'd only find out about any lacks at the exit exam! Needless to say, that was horrifically too late.

Then there was a period when we'd instituted a placement exam, but the end result, regardless of a candidate's performance, was only "suggestions" about areas which would be the student's own choice to remediate by taking various courses, more-or-less relevant to the problems.

Then there was a period when, at Dharmonia's suggestion, we instituted a one-semester "Graduate History Review," which was both a brush-up on all periods but also, at least as important, a semester-long coaching & practice session for those getting ready to take those exit exam. And then we finally got to where we would tie low performance on the entering placement exam to a requirement for the review course : 3 tiers of scores: [top score] "PASS: no further action required"; [median] "MARGINAL: review course recommended"; [low] "NO PASS: review course required". It was only then that we could finally identify academic problems right at the beginning of a grad student's career, direct her/him to specifically tailored remediation, and maximize constructive use of the time between matriculation and graduation to fix those problems.

And we turn it around quick. I walked out of the exam room today at 4pm, having administered around 32 exams. By 6pm I had them graded, ranked, and recommendations written, and had forwarded them to the director of graduate studies (but asked him to hold d off on communicating results to students--I know damned well that if I turn the exam around with results in 12 hours this year, then next year the little bastards will start sending email queries after only 6).

It's not a perfect system--we're still tweaking, and I've added an additional layer of recommended remediation this year for the first time--but at least now it's a complete system.

Because I won't let the system screw them like it did me.

1 comment:

sunshine said...

and some of us greatly appreciate it. :-)
you're a good man, charlie brown.