Final exams in high school--unnecessary

I hate high-school final exams—giving them, not taking them.  Nineteen years ago when I started teaching in the Chicago Public Schools, I avoided giving them because I never saw the point.  If students already demonstrated their learning in writing assignments, large and small, and took a few multiple choice quizzes to show me if they “got it” it or not, why did I need to give them another 50-item, 45-minute test a day before grades were due?

These days, I give something that looks like an exam because I have bigger battles to fight as teacher leader.  If I don’t give a final, some of my students may likely freak out: “What?!  No final?!  Everyone gave a final?!  Why aren’t you giving a final?!”

I could respond with a complicated stance on 21st century teaching and learning practices that challenge outdated traditions, which overwhelm students with bubble sheets and teachers with messy short answers to skim—I mean—read.  I probably should.

In the 21st century, we’re supposed to give students real-world experiences inside the classroom.  I cannot think of any profession that requires people to take lengthy multiple-choice, short answer, and essay exams for long periods of time.

“But Ray! Without final exams, students won’t be prepared for college!”  I hear skeptics shouting.

“Really?” I’ll shout back.  “Is THAT what it means to be prepared for college?”

While students need to feel confident and be competent enough to take multiple-choice tests, taking final exams contributes minimally to learning.

Giving these ol’ school exams is like celebrating Groundhog Day: it’s an event that’s supposed to give us meaningful information but really doesn’t.  People make a big deal about it anyway.  Once upon a time, this tradition mattered.

If the groundhog sees its shadow, spring comes early.  If it doesn’t, the winter is longer.  By the time 56-degree weather comes in March, many Chicagoans—desperate for some sun and fun—wear shorts.  Who cares if the groundhog saw its shadow?  Who remembers?  What matters is we can finally see ours—winter’s almost over!

Finals are the same way.  By the time students find out if they were wrong or right, it doesn’t matter!  Grades are in.  Report cards are printed.  Students have moved on.  So have we.

Some teachers make final exams worth a large part of the quarter’s or semester’s grade.  If they do, students who did not do well or didn’t work much during the quarter or semester can salvage their grade by a full letter (or more) with one test.  If they were below 60% at the end of 9 ½ weeks, one test pushes them up to 59.9% or right into a D.

Students deserve opportunities to raise their grade.  But if they can go from having an F for a few weeks and then get a passing grade after one 45-minute test, the teaching and assessment become questionable.

On the other hand, those students who were making progress for 9 ½ weeks find themselves, after sitting for 45 minutes, with a lower grade—or even a failing one.  What do they learn?

Other teachers make the final exam such a small percentage of the final grade that students will go up or down just a few percentage points.  These insignificant gains or losses are not worth the stress caused by days of testing and nights of grading.

“But I want to get those five points to raise my grade, Salazar,” some say.

I say, “Focus on the learning—not the grade.”

In both cases, the grade goes on the report card and, almost always, everyone forgets what happened on the exam.

We know that contemporary frameworks, such as Understanding by Design, encourage teachers to design instruction so students demonstrate their learning in smaller, lower stakes assessments.  Teacher can then make thoughtful adjustments.

Parents can also intervene, avoiding surprise situations:  “Ma!  I’m passing!” suddenly becomes “Uh . . . Ma . . .”

The final assessment should not be a test—it should be a relevant real-world experience.  In writing classes, we produce narrative, expository, and argumentative texts that can live and breathe outside our classroom.  These student products should promote conversation and reflection with others.

If we were to take the final exam outside of the classroom for people to discuss, no one would really care.  The most people might do is put it on the fridge.

Here’s what works better:

1. After identifying the 6-8 standards for the quarter, determine the 2 “big” real-world assessments where students will show their learning: an argumentative response, a painting, a demonstration, a performance.  In a ten-week quarter, make the first assessment due around week five.  Make the second one due around week nine.  Make grading manageable.  These performance assessments should, of course, be connected to some meaningful essential question that has value outside of the class.

2. Determine the short intervals where a brief multiple-choice, fill in the blank, or short answer responses can give insight into whether students are learning.  This can also be an opportunity to assess their social-emotional development.  Document student performance in the grade book by including the standard  AND the assignment.

3. Select the classroom activities that will help students practice and develop the academic standards and social-emotional skills identified.

4. Avoid lengthy exams that are cumbersome to put together, burdensome to administer (and have students make up), and overwhelming to make use of after all grading and grade entry is done.

Twenty-first century students will appreciate the manageable workload.  And teachers can make better use of their evenings instead of grading at the kitchen table long into the night.

Do you find final exams more meaningful or more meaningless?  

Are there alternatives or modifications you’ve seen or used?

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