24 May 2011

Final Exams

So, diligent readers of the BlazeBlog, we've reached That Time of the Year Again. It's finals season. Now, many of you are collegians, and you're hopefully already done with your finals (good belated luck, by the way).

However, the BlazeBlog is dedicated to "Random Ramblings on Public Education", and since I still (for the next 3 1/2 days anyway) work in a public high school, we're just starting our finals schedule.

Finals are an interesting concept.

They exist, we are told, to provide an assessment of how well students have learned the subject material they were expected to learn for the year (or semester, as the case may be). To make sure that students take these tests seriously, they often carry disproportionate weight to the number of questions. As an example, in my district, teachers are encouraged to weight a final at between 15 and 20% of the final semester grade.

These tests, I believe, hold value for both students and teachers alike. I don't know that they should be worth 20% of a grade, but I do believe they should be given. However, I'm in favor of giving teachers some flexibility in the way they give their finals. Right now, in many schools, teachers are expected to give an actual test for their exam. Why not allow a project, a presentation, or some other form of letting students demonstrate their mastery of a subject? (well, how about "their competence"? That's probably better, since I'm not a huge fan of mastery learning.)

Further, many schools go to a special schedule for finals. Again, this makes sense. However, many of those schedules have standard or even abbreviated class periods during finals. A test which is worth 1/5 of the total points in a course is given in one class period. Further, schools (the ones I've worked in at least) want those finals graded quickly so that they can determine who passed classes, and who needs to re-take them.

So these two factors lead teachers to design tests which are easy to administer and grade. What's the easiest to administer and grade? Multiple Choice. Never mind that Multiple Choice is a terrible way to determine actual knowledge. Never mind that even the best test developers in the world no longer place much emphasis on pure Multiple Choice. It's easy to make, easy to take, and quick to grade, and that's what matters.

What's that you say? You're pointing out that early on I defended finals as a "valuable tool" to help determine what students had learned and what teachers might need to change? I did. But those were theoretical finals. In the real world, finals are Scantron-tacular. Why? Because it's the easiest way to get to the end of testing and the year.

It's all a part of the culture of compliance. Central offices, colleges, parents and alumni all think that finals are important. So high schools give them. That doesn't mean that those tests are doing any good, does it?

Well, maybe it does. Allow me to propose a defense of final exams:

Finals are, whether we like it or not, the reality in many post-graduate programs of learning. Colleges and universities (and yes, there is a difference, look it up) almost all use final exams. Many of those exams are worth as much as 33% of a semester grade. Most vocational programs require students to take a test at the end of the program. When you apprentice, you are required to demonstrate competence when you finish. Think about it, when you learned to drive, you had to take a written test before you took your driving test. When was the last time a cop gave you a written test while you were pulled over?

By making students take finals in an environment where we model how to prepare for a final, we help them prepare for later in life (which should be our goal overall). But to make that experience really work, we must develop better ways to evaluate students' learning.  We have to break the Scantron Shackles that keep us bound to tests which are ineffective at telling us anything meaningful about what students have actually learned.

I realize that this post has been a bit of a rambler, so let me try to consolidate my thoughts into a convenient, bulleted list:
  • Finals are high stakes.
  • Finals, in many places, are weak Scantron tests because of requirements for timing and scoring in a short amount of time.
  • Finals are valuable to evaluate the effectiveness of classes and classroom instruction, as long as they aren't the finals in the point before this one.
  • Finals, even in their bad form, are good, because the "real-world" often presents the same type of testing.
I would come up with a witty ending, but I just don't have the energy, I'm too busy writing and grading finals

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