Debate Opinions

It’s time to reassess the “final exam”

"Exam" by albertogp123 on Flickr

It’s likely that many of my students have been sitting at home fretting about their return to school after our six consecutive snow days. Their concern? It’s the final day of exams, which has been repeatedly postponed while we’ve been dealing with Snowpocalypse 2014.

Ah, exams. The always stressful, cumulative test that is worth such-and-such percent of a student’s semester grade. The advocates argue that exams are a necessary evil because they get students prepared for college. You see, the argument goes that without the prior experience of studying for an important test, students will apparently be confused and unprepared when their college professors announce final exams.

And that’s about as far as the justification for giving exams goes. It simply isn’t good enough.

A couple years ago, our district contracted with Empowered Schools so that the consultant group could come to our school to present its strategies to increase student achievement. An overriding message shared by Empowered Schools President Howard McMackin was that by focusing on teaching skills rather than content, students will develop critical thinking skills that will help them be successful on any test. In other words, we don’t need to “train” students to take high-stakes tests, because if they have critical thinking skills, they’ll be perfectly suited to take any kind of test regardless of their exposure to it ahead of time.

This isn’t to say that all end-of-semester assessments are a waste of time. It’s just that this idea of giving a single test that must be completed in one or two class periods and that also fully assesses all of the skills we have taught in a semester is basically asinine. Let’s face it: in order to comply with an administrator’s final exam directive, many teachers simply assemble a list of questions that check whether students can recall random facts. Skills assessment goes out the window, as the exam only focuses on assessing information that could be found just as easily by doing a Google search.

Fortunately, the solution is simple: our “exams” should actually be end-of-semester projects, which make take several days to complete. Now, I assume that many teachers who are reading this post understand this already, but it’s vitally important that we ensure these projects are actually assessing the skills we have taught. I admit that I have been guilty in the past of making students create posters and other silly pieces of “art” that really don’t assess any skills other than how well my students can draw (sorry, but the argument that you are teaching English Language *ARTS* really doesn’t hold water). Our projects need to assess our students’ abilities to read, write, and–most importantly–think. If they can do this, they’ll do just fine on those final exams in college.

So here is my challenge to administrators: let’s reassess what we define as a “final exam.” Let’s give students a project. Give them adequate time to complete it. Make sure it assesses skills rather than content. Finally, don’t tie its importance to a percent of a student’s grade. If there is a concern that students won’t take the project seriously, then we need to do a better job of promoting its importance. Maybe we can display their work at an end-of-semester “community night.”

I’m guessing that will cause students a few restless nights more than any test possibly could.

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