Do students really need to take a final exam?

I used to work really hard revising, refining, and developing a comprehensive final exam to give my students at the end of each semester. I was quite proud of each iteration of the exam as they became more challenging every year. However, I came to realize something that made me reconsider the value of a comprehensive tests. 

A colleague and I were discussing a potential video series we wanted to produce titled, If School Really Prepared Us for the Real World. This was going to be a parody that highlighted the practices of teachers that, though we say we are preparing students for beyond high school, do nothing but the contrary. We talked about possibly showing a cashier whose manager comes up and asks for her homework. When the cashier says she had a hard night and couldn’t get it done the manager informs her that $20 would be deducted from her pay check. However, if the employee got it done tomorrow she could get $10 added back, but after that it would not be accepted. These were going to be some real tongue and cheek videos that mocked many common practices of our profession. They were going to be a lot of fun. 

As I thought about other ideas for our series I considered how we could treat tests. There are very few (if any) jobs out there where employees are required to take regular, comprehensive tests. Over the past 18 years of my teaching career, the only test I’ve had to take was for National Board Certification (and I took that by choice.) That’s it. I can’t remember taking another test. My colleagues have said the same thing. I’ve asked friends who work in other professions and they say they don’t take test. So, if teachers are to help prepare students for the real world, how do traditional tests support this?

I used to administer bi-weekly tests and the only reason I did it was because I thought, to be a good teacher,  I had to force kids to remember and recall information because I thought this proved I was doing a good job. However, in reality I didn’t spend much time looking at the tests since I created them on a computer and the computer graded them for me. I wasn’t providing meaningful feedback and I certainly wasn’t aware of my students’ strengths and weaknesses. I was simply “playing school”. I was failing to promote growth and mastery. 

I became convinced that tests were not  an effective or practical tool to assess student learning. I decided I would no longer perpetuate this asinine practice that was more about me than it was about them. I decided to be more authentic. I decided to throw out my tests. And when I decided to throw them out I needed to replace them with something more  meaningful where my students could demonstrate mastery and growth. 

After reading the work of Rick Wormeli and Diane Heacox I saw the value of differentiation and standards-based assessment. As a teacher, I could assess students by listening to student discussion, conversations with me, journal entries, and various student-centered projects. I needed to be intentional when teaching a standard. If I valued the learning of a standard I needed to teach it, allow students to practice it, make mistakes, revise, and ultimately develop self-directed projects that incorporate the standard. If students can design their own project to meet a standard then they have certainly mastered it. Tests do not allow for differentiation and creativity. However, portfolios do. 

I had students keep track of their work electronically. This is easily done with Google Drive.  Students created a folder and stored their essays, presentations, and uploaded pictures of physical projects. Everything was easily saved and accessed. All that had to be done was to assess the portfolio. But what was it was I wanted to see.

  • I wanted to see students meet the standard. 
  • I wanted to see students demonstrate growth. 
  • I wanted to see if students could develop their own projects to meet standards. 

The next thing I had to tackle was how I would assess the portfolio. I knew I could not fully understand my students’ growth by browsing their portfolios in isolation. 

The answer to this was easy. I’d conference with students. I’ve used conferences with students for years, but only on major essays. I knew conferencing was effective. It allowed time for me to probe and challenge my students, provide individual feedback, answer questions, and clear up any misconceptions. I have always valued this time with students, but I  never used conferencing as an assessment tool. I decided that I would start using conferencing as a summative assessment and allow the student to tell me what was learned. 

Our school has a built in finals schedule that give me 2 hours to fill. Instead of giving a comprehensive final exam, I planned to run student-led conferences that focuses on reflection on learning. Students would review their work and explain to me what they learned. Students shared their work with me and answered three questions:

  1. What evidence demonstrates you met the essential standards?
  2. What evidence do you have of growth in the standards?
  3. What evidence do you have that you can be creative to meet the standard?

If this is what I really wanted to know from my students then this is what they were going to tell me. I knew, as Alfie Kohn said, that “tests distracted students from meaningful learning.” I wanted meaningful learning so Making this shift was logical.  

During my first conference I was impressed with each of my students ability to articulate what they learned. They had a sense of pride and confidence during our time together. At the end of the conference I allowed students to choose their grade. I knew the grade was more meaningful to them than it ever was to me. So, I figured why not let them make this decision. My students were reflective and honest–sometimes they were  harder on themselves than I would have been.  

A colleague  once said that a final exam is valuable because it allows teachers to see what learning students have acquired over a semester. I’d say they’ve taught me little in comparison to portfolios and student-led conferencing. I now know what each student is capable of doing, I know their strengths and weaknesses, and they know that I’ll listen to them and trust them to make important decisions about who they are and what they have learned. 

I don’t think I could ever administer a test to my students again. Rather, I will continue to search for new ways to give more control and choice to my students. I have discovered that when students are free to learn and are challenged they find meaning in education  and they thrive. So, I will settle for nothing less than a thriving class and tests will not be a part of my pedagogy any longer.  


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