Friday, January 16, 2009

The Wisdom of Finals?

With semester exams in full swing at my school, I have been rethinking the wisdom of finals. Ah, finals week: altered schedules, sharpened pencils stacked like cord wood, reams of scantrons, review sheets, kids frantically calculating—but not trig formulas—instead they are calculating how well they need to do on the final to get, or maintain a particular grade. (Are those students concerned with learning?)

My first question is this: What is the purpose of a final exam? I believe there is a theory and a sad reality to this. First the theory: A final exam can measure the cumulative growth of a student and evaluate the “total package” of what he has learned. Also if the final is a school-wide or district-wide final, it can measure how well the course is being taught, and whether or not students are meeting standards. In this respect, a final exam is a critical step in ensuring a guaranteed and viable curriculum.

The reality: One of three scenarios usually occurs: One, sometime in the last week of class a teacher frantically pieces together questions from previous unit tests and writes a smattering of questions based solely on her memory of the class. Two, the teacher is prescribed to give the “department assessment,” and spends the first ten minutes of the final period telling students which questions to skip because the topics weren’t covered. Finally, there is the “District Assessment” that teachers administer, scan the results, see that given the current scale, many would fail and “curve” the results to get their nice, neat bell curve.
Are these finals doing what we want them to do?

Writing a reliable, valid final examination is difficult work. Developing an assessment that measures all learning targets of a course can be done, but often isn’t. Also, the assessment needs to be written before the class commences (Wiggins, Understanding by Design) If it is created after, it tends to be “reactionary” as opposed prescriptive. One of my colleagues gives students the final on the first day of class, so they know what to expect. Kudos to her! Some may argue, “yes but then aren’t we just teaching to the test?” If the test accurately measures the targets of the class, then yes, we should absolutely be teaching to that test, BUT how often are tests that valid?

Standard final exams in high school usually represent something like 20% of the semester grade, which is equivalent to 4 ½ weeks of course work. Personally, I have a hard time quantifying this inequity.

We talk about the “student-centered classroom” “project-based learning” and “collaborative learning” yet our biggest assessment of the year is done in a timed, isolated setting with a student completing primarily recall questions in a passive, non-creative fashion.
Often times, the justification for administering final exams is to prepare students for college. If the theory is to give them practice at high-stakes tests, I think we have that covered even without finals. From the Iowa Test of Basic Skills all the way to SAT, ACT, and state NCLB requirements, students get more than their share of “big tests.”

Teachers may feel the need to administer a final because it’s “always been done” and may argue that in order to fully assess students, they need a “big” grade at the end. This gets me to my alternative solution. Instead of a timed final exam, I prefer a culminating “project” as the final assessment.. Here is an example of what I did in one class:
In my sophomore English class, I focused on the following skills:
• Literary analysis
• Text marking
• Inquiry-based research
• Proper documentation of sources
• Structured collaborative learning skills including writing
• On-line research skills

For the “final” project, study of Lord of the Flies I placed students in groups of three, and gave each group a particular “lens” for studying the novel. The students were to read, discuss, and research the book with an emphasis on that lens. Then they were to create a scholarly article (via a wiki) with an analysis of that lens or theme, and write two discussion/ analysis questions on that theme. For the last assessment, students read each others’ articles, and answered the questions posed by the students. They had all read the biook, but were only expert in one theme. This allowed them to learn from each other while mastering all the major foci of the book. I found this to be a much more valuable assessment tool for my students since it allowed them to display their skills in virtually everything we worked towards.
Most importantly, the project allowed students to demonstrate what they can do, not what they can’t.

I’m not sure all final exams do that.

(Photo courtesy of flickr contributor sashamd)