Sunday, January 29, 2012

Final Exams Have It All Wrong #EdChat

This past week was final exam time in my district for the high schools. It's a pretty standard affair. Students are given 1.5 hours to complete an exam that is supposed to evaluate all of their learning for 20 weeks. The exam is worth 20% of their overall semester grade with the two 10-week marking periods being worth 40% each. Before this year, I've never really had an issue with the setup, but it really bothers me this year. I'm not sure why, but I feel like this is the dumbest idea conceived for evaluating student knowledge. How can one test be worth so much? There has to be a better way. 

Surprise, I have a better way (in my opinion). The emphasis for a class should be placed on learning the material in the class during the two marking periods, not cramming for an exam in the hopes of bringing up a grade. I would like to see a different plan that looks like this. 

Instead of 1 exam that students need to cram for, I would like to see the average grade earned on unit assessments be taken and used as 10% of the overall semester grade. The two marking periods would be assessed as 45% each and the average grade on the unit assessments would be used for the remaining 10%. I feel this places more emphasis on the learning during the marking periods and less emphasis on cramming for one exam. 

Why I think it would be good:

- This new method would relieve these kids of the burden of studying for 7 exams take over 5 days. 

- Teachers would not be hammered with 120 essays to check in the course of one week to get the grades entered in on time. 

- Instead of spending a week of half days testing, the time could be spent on learning. 

- It's a better assessment of what a student knows. All it takes is for one bad day or one misread essay question to potentially kill a student's grade by 20%. A final exam should not be punitive. 

It seems to be me that students are getting more and more stressed each and every year and I feel that schools have a responsibility to keep the kids as sane as we can while providing top notch learning and assessment? I wonder, do we even need final exams at all? Is that discussion even happening in school districts?

- @TheNerdyTeacher


  1. On some level I agree with you but I also need to know how much material the students are retaking and taking to the next class. I teach math and have found that some students cram for the unit exams only to forget the material after the unit exam. My feeling is that the students need touch of the content for their next class. If a student in Algebra 2 only gets a 75% on the final they are probably going to struggle significantly in precalc. Also, there is the issue of college where in math courses often the final exam counts for more than 20%. Learning to properly prepare for this type of cumulative exam is a skill that we can help teach.

  2. I think this works well for some disciplines (English) where content is not the focus. English is a process of improving reading and writing skills; who cares what Lennie's aunt's name is in Of Mice & Men? Who cares if Paul Baumer sustains an injury to his arm, his arm and foot, or his foot? I would rather the student do projects or essays (well, that really does not fix the 120 essay problem) . Vocabulary (contextual or literary) may be the only "new" material. What drives me crazy are the disciplines that use canned midterms and scantron sheets! How are those valuable?? Exams -especially finals-are a waste of educational time.

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  4. We had midterms this week and I am convinced they are a complete waste of time. As a high school math teacher, I learn nothing from midterms that I don't already know about what my students know and are able to do. I can learn just as much about what my students are struggling with by working with them individually in class, or marking smaller assignments. If we are using them to prepare them for long, high-stakes tests such as SATs (a common argument in favor of "big" tests), then we should just do practice SATs.
    In my opinion, these exams are just extremely stressful for students and extremely frustrating for teachers.
    (Warning: I just spent about 8 hours grading midterms, and all of the students did almost exactly as I would have predicted. That may have influenced my comment!)

  5. In reality, I don't think exams have all that much effect on a student's grade. The best they can do is remind non-test takers that they are bad at tests, while training good paper thinkers to take exams after HS.

    My preferred alternative: take the entire week and schedule appointments with learners to discuss what they've accomplished in a course/term/subject.

  6. As I am in the process of putting my students through these right now, I think your ideas are fantastic. We have complete freedom for teaching and assessment except for the district-wide exams which were written nearly 5 years ago by teachers who aren't in the district anymore. We end up teaching to this test and it is a detriment to the students. If it didn't require board approval and paying a committee to make the changes, I would absolutely push to implement some of your ideas.

  7. We instigated final exams because of student surveys. Our graduates told us they were not prepared for finals when they experienced them in college. We do have a responsibility to prepare them for that aspect of their future, I believe.

  8. Why is it that the more we accommodate, differentiate, and personalize our instruction, the more "stressed" our students say they are when we attempt to assess their knowledge on what they've learned. My mid-year exams tell me a lot. Mostly they tell me that some of the students have difficulty when asked to work alone for 90 minutes and demonstrate any sort of mastery. The solution? Should we just eliminate exams and pretend that this is not so?

  9. I agree that exams are not always a very good assessment of student learning. A test/exam is just one type of assessment, when used to assess certain types of knowledge can be effective.
    I also see the trend where students are becoming quite anxious heading into high stakes tests. And this pressure leads to 'cramming', which as you mentioned doesn't lead to the best learning.
    Having students complete some sort of summative assessment at the end of a year can be great. Differentiating for students and allowing for some flexibility in how students demonstrate their learning would be my preference.

    My big question about the 'weighting' of marking periods is that it doesn't necessarily reflect the most recent learning. A student that struggles to learn a concept early in the year but works to understand the concept later in the year shouldn't be penalized for not learning 'on time'. Recognizing the most recent learning is important and any mark/percentage given should hopefully reflect a student's level of understanding when they finish a course.


  10. I will keep in mind those tips of yours specially now that our exam is nearing. Most likely, I would have to talk to our college admissions counselor too to help me in my reviewing schemes.


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