I have been having many conversations this year with teachers about our practice of administering final exams for students. Although I cannot confirm with certainty, I recently read that the final exam process has been happening since the 1830s. With all the current research on effective assessment, how students learn and knowing that we are required to make decisions that have a student’s best interest as the primary consideration, I have to question why we are still doing this, this way. What is the purpose of a final exam and is it the best way to achieve that purpose? Many people indicate that a final is a way for teachers to measure whether or not a student has learned what has been taught in the classroom, some indicate its how universities do it so we should too and others sometime claim it prepares them for the “real world.”
I watched a teacher work with a student the other day. She was watching him explain to another student how to do a math calculation. Through this process the student was truly able to demonstrate what he knew. Her biggest fear for this student will be when he is required to write a timed high stakes test with a hundred other students in an extremely structured setting. What approach seems to be more reliable and really indicative of what the student knows?
At random I chose two well known universities, Harvard and Berkley, and googled their final exam procedures. At Harvard only 259 of the 1,137 classes offered finals. Furthermore, it is expected that unless the professor declares early in the semester and notifies the Office of the Registrar that they plan on having a seated final exam they will not have one. Berkley communicates that oftentimes the alternatives (to final exams) may even be advantageous to promote student learning and be a more authentic means of students demonstrating what they have learned. Surely if these two institutions have changed we must question this approach in our schools. Even if universities are not changing their final exam procedures, is poor practices by other institutions really an excuse and reason for us to do the same?
As for real world application, other than school and my driver license I can’t remember writing a high stakes exam to demonstrate what I know. Not that long ago I was held accountable to my colleagues and had to demonstrate what I knew regarding a leadership approach. This was not done by sitting in a room for two or more hours writing a multiple choice exam that would determine whether or not I could continue as a school administrator. I worked with partners and presented to an audience.
I understand that there are limitations and perhaps different subjects require different approaches, but continuing to do the same thing the same way, just because it’s how it’s been done decades or perhaps even a century ago seems to be unfair and outdated.