Are Exams Still Worth It?

It’s winter once again.  The days are growing shorter and colder, the snowflakes are starting to fly, and as we do around this time every year, we are talking about the first term exam schedule at my school.

High school exams are typically cumulative  comprehensive assessments given at the end of a grading term.  They are often weighted to account for between 10 and 40% of a student’s final grade for a class.  Administering these exams usually requires a special schedule to provide enough time to take each one and to spread them out over the course of several days so students aren’t overloaded.  Ostensibly the purpose of an exam is to allow a teacher to double-check that students really know what they’re supposed to know.  Exams also serve as a last chance for a student to improve his/her grade in a course.

I’ve spent some time talking with my colleagues about exams and it seems to me that giving them has less to do with sound educational principles and more to do with tradition — it’s just something that we have always done.  I’m not against summative assessment, or even final exams per se, but the more I think about it, the more difficult it is to justify (at least in my mind) the time spent preparing for and giving exams.  Here are some of my questions:

  • If my final exam is a vaild, detailed, cumulative and comprehensive evaluation of the essential topics I taught in my class why should it only worth between 10% and 40% of the final grade?  To put it another way, if a C student fails such an exam, can I really say that he passed my class?
  • On the other end of the spectrum, if a C student aces my final exam, what grade do I give him?  Can I justify any grade other than an A for the class?  Am I really going to penalize him for not learning the material the first time around?  Should I really care when he learned it as long as he learned it?
  • If my final exam is not a valid, detailed, cumulative and comprehensive evaluation of the essential topics I taught in my class, then what is it?  Is it different than any other project or assignment given during the course?  Does it need a special category with a special weight? Does it require a special schedule?  Does it deserve a special place on the report card?
  • If there is a large discrepancy between a student’s test scores and the grade she receives on my final exam, doesn’t that suggest that either my tests are invalid, or my exam is invalid (or both)?
  • If there is a close correspondence between a student’s test scores and her exam grade (which has been my experience), why bother with the exam?  Doesn’t it just reinforce what I already know — that some students understand the material well and some don’t?
  • It has been suggested to me that an exam is an opportunity for students to combine skills  from different units, to build on what they’ve learned, and to “put it all together.”  While I couldn’t agree more that these are important aspects of teaching and  learning, do I need a special time and date assigned to me to accomplish this?  Shouldn’t I be doing this throughout the course whether there is a final exam scheduled or not?  Can such an important task even be accomplished during one exam period?
  • Lastly, what can I do for a student who does poorly on an assessment which was scheduled for the last day of class?  The student will never know what important skills he didn’t learn and I’ll never have a chance to explain what went wrong.  The grade just appears on the report card.

One argument in favor of final exams is that they prepare high school students for some rather grueling exams during and after college.  This should not be discounted.  But I wonder if the kinds of tests students might experience in college should necessarily be the driving force behind testing decisions in high school.

What am I missing here?  What can you say to motivate me to give exams?


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