Examining Exams

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The arrival of the holiday season brings joy and happiness to some as they look forward to holiday celebrations and spending time with family and friends. On the other hand, the arrival of the holiday season brings stress to others, such as Upper School students here at Collegiate, because this means that semester exams (Dec. 12-16) are fast approaching. Unhappy memories of spending hours poring over textbooks, frantically creating study guides, and consuming copious amounts of caffeine flash into student’s minds as they anxiously begin to relearn material from an entire semester in the days leading up to the exam. These tests account for as much as 25% of students’ overall course grade, which does not alleviate any anxiety.

Teachers and students acknowledge the excessive amount of stress that exams cause students and attempt to calm their nerves by offering their own study guides, review games, and words of encouragement. Upper School English teacher Vlastik Svab says that he “always tr[ies] to provide time to work in class on final projects and review in [his] English classes during the last week of classes, without too much new material, because I know there is stress from other classes’ assessments and exam preparation in general.” If these tests cause everyone to fall into such a panicked state, then what is the point of even having them? I find myself asking this question every year while preparing for my own exams, so I decided to investigate the motives behind these tests that take countless hours to prepare for and many hours to complete.

Exams are a way for teachers to measure a student’s proficiency in a particular subject. They are used to determine whether students understand certain concepts before moving on to new ones. For some students, it is a way to show how much they have learned and how well they can do. For others, it is a last-ditch effort to boost their overall grade before the end of the year. Collegiate Upper School Learning Specialist Helen Markiewicz, who helps students study and prepare for exams each semester, stated that exams are given “because they assess you on what you have learned and hold kids accountable for what they have learned.” Also, since Collegiate administers final exams, students will know how to prepare for them should they face them in college.

Most language, science, and math courses at Collegiate give written exams, since there are few other options that successfully assess students knowledge in those subjects. Val Siff, Foreign Language Department Chair, states that “the comprehensive exam experience gives students a chance to demonstrate their ability to apply the knowledge they have gained throughout the semester. Students have the opportunity to prove that they have not only learned specific language functions, but that they can actually function in the language they are studying.” Following his department chair’s advice, French teacher Mark Hall gives an exam in each of the four classes he teaches. He believes that there is value in the final exam at the end of the school year, since our spring semester is longer and more material is covered. However, Hall questions the necessity of a mid-term exam. “In my discipline, we assess so frequently, that I’m not sure that the [mid-term] exam is as needed as it once had been,” says Hall. But how can one final test truly measure the knowledge of the student? If that student has succeeded all year in a course but completely fails a final exam because of exhaustion or anxiety, should their grade plummet as a result?

Some local county schools have answered this question by making exams optional for students who meet specific qualifications that are decided by each district. For example, in Hanover County Public schools, seniors are exempt from a class exam if they have not received a grade less than a “B” on their report card for that class in each of the nine week grading periods (see page 55-6 in the linked HCPS Student Handbook). Deep Run High School in Henrico County has a similar policy, which states that seniors are not required to take a class exam as long as their average in that class is an 85 or above at the end of the third nine-week grading period (page 5). They believe that if a student is already succeeding in a class, the student has demonstrated their knowledge of the subject Therefore, the student should not have to relearn the material.

Other schools are changing their exam policies altogether. Just across town at Trinity Episcopal School, their math, history, and foreign language courses have an exam, but all other courses can choose to give an “alternative assessment” instead of a final test. Carter Chambliss (’18), a junior at Trinity, says that she “likes not having so many exams because it helps limit the stress.” Some colleges are even moving away from the final exam, like at Harvard, where fewer and fewer courses are giving final exams each year. During the 2010 spring semester, the university offered 1,137 courses and only 259 of them had scheduled final exams.

Limiting the amount of exams would be helpful for certain students who do not test well and have test anxiety. These types of students could tell you everything they know about the Civil War or the Law of Conservation of Matter, but put a test or quiz in front of them and they may forget everything they ever learned about that topic due to stress or anxiety from test-taking. They have a difficult time recalling information in order to successfully complete an assessment, especially when they are tested on large amounts of information from a course that lasts for several months. Rebecca Robins (‘18) admits that test anxiety is a problem for her. “It’s like there’s a weight on my chest and I can’t think or breathe. I lose so much of the information that I studied the second I start the test, and my grades don’t really show how much I know and how much work I put into preparing for them,” says Robins. Taking an exam on one unit of material is a difficult task for one subject, much less five or six subjects.

The anxiety of exam week may also be more detrimental than educational. Markiewicz claims that this anxiety stems from the fact that exams “count as a large part of their final grade… and kids that are not doing very well [in a course] probably have not learned the material and are trying to cram, and then they get stressed because they are trying to cram for a test that counts for even more of their grade.” In addition, some students lose sleep time in the days leading up to the test, and they may not eat as healthy as they normally do. Catherine Clark (‘18) shared that she has, “been staying up a lot later than usual this week, so I’ve been drinking a lot of coffee every day, which I don’t usually do.” Even the week before exams is stressful, as teachers attempt to squeeze in last-minute quizzes, tests, and projects. This work makes students more anxious. Lee Kennon (‘18) said that she is “trying to balance the work I’m still being given with the excessive amounts of studying, which is causing me to stay up way too late.” These unhealthy behaviors could be minimized if exams were no longer required.

In the English department, all freshmen take an exam in English 9, yet most junior/senior English electives either give a final paper or some sort of other final assessment. In Pete Follansbee’s English 10 class, students create a “portfolio” which includes a self-evaluation, in which they “look back over their writing and talk about what they’ve been thinking about over the course of the semester, and articulate their strengths and weaknesses.” The portfolio also includes a revised paper from the semester. Follansbee assigns a portfolio to his Poetry Workshop juniors and seniors as well. This portfolio consists of five revised and polished poems (written by the student), as well as a self-evaluation.

Some history classes also assign final projects instead of giving an exam. For example, World History 3 culminates with a final World Affairs project, where students research a global issue and present their findings to the Collegiate community at the World Affairs Symposium. Upper School History teacher Ashley Sipe is a strong supporter of this project. “What I really like is that there’s so many different pieces to the project that people who are strong writers really excel with the paper; or if they’re not, then this project is a great chance to practice those writing and research skills. There’s also the presentation portion of the project, which allows students to strengthen their presenting skills,” says Sipe. She believes that this assignment is a more interesting alternative to the traditional final exam. “Because the students get to pick their topic, you get to really see how much they learn when they become an expert on that topic. It’s not just about memorizing five thousand dates or several facts; the students really get to learn a lot with this project about important world issues, and that gives them so much more real world knowledge.” Also, Sipe hopes that this assignment helps to eliminate some of the students’ anxiety leading into exam week.”This time of year is a really stressful time, and if we can have our final assignment finished before exams, then that helps with students’ stress.”

While many classes here at Collegiate already assign a final project like this one, I personally wish that more classes would consider other options instead of having a final exam. I tend to be more of a creative person, so I find that final projects are a better way for me to show what I have learned. Personally, I do not believe in the concept of exams. This is not because I simply do not want to put in the effort to study for them. I believe that taking a massive test is an inaccurate measure of my knowledge. Tests and quizzes make me nervous, and often times anxiety prevents me from recalling all of the information that I have studied. I know that many times when I do not do well on a test and I go to my teacher and talk that assessment over with them, I can explain to them exactly how to do a problem or tell them all the facts about a concept. However, I may have just been unable to express that knowledge on a piece of paper on a required day at a required time. Also, I do not understand why I should be re-assessed on material that I have already been tested on. It does not make sense to me that one final exam can cause a student’s grade to decrease significantly, even if they have succeeded in the course for the whole semester. Is it really useful for students to cram a whole semester’s worth of knowledge in the days before an exam and then have them forget it all soon after?

Featured image credit: Betsy Watters (via Flickr).

About the author

Hayden is a junior at Collegiate School.