What’s the point of exams? This contentious question got me thinking about the practice. My first reaction is a defensive one. So I want to disclose my bias right from the jump, I am in favor of exams. In another post, Adapting for the 21st Century: The Case for Abolishing Exams, I make an effort to honor other peoples’ dissenting perspectives and challenge my own.

Exams, a mainstay of high school and college courses, are a fundamental learning opportunity. One of my colleagues said, “Exams are an opportunity to reflect on and synthesize all of the learning from the semester.” I tend to agree with this notion. It’s my contention that exams are an opportunity to grow and should not be treated as an endpoint. One of my professors put it best after I did poorly: “If my exam hasn’t challenged you to apply what you’ve learned to new problems, I’ve failed.” I believe, any test is just a snapshot in time, an opportunity to challenge and improve ourselves.

Advocates tend to appeal to the ideals of academic rigor and accountability. Without exams, they argue, students have no reason to revisit and grapple with material again. The accountability bears with it an emphasis on each student’s responsibility for his or her own learning. The exams teach students to manage time and stress. Two skills that they will need to prosper and meet the evolving demands of the worker day world. It’s our job to educate, advocates argue, not coddle.

It’s all to tempting as a teacher to make the study guide virtually indistinguishable from the exam. Gone are the days where you only got a list of topics. Many Individualized Education Plans make study guides compulsory. This practice alters student expectations. They are shell-shocked by novel problems. One student, without fail, complains incessantly during the exam when she gets to a problem that is not of the same form as those in the study guide. My response, “Do what you think, I’m testing you knowledge, not my own,” infuriates students. They are uncomfortable with uncertainty, and therein lies the value of exams. Students have to engage in a productive struggle and persevere. It is hard not to cave in when faced with looks of consternation, but its our duty as educators.

After midterm and final exams, sometimes within hours, I get emails from anxious students and parents who want to know their grade. Live” gradebooks feed the frenzy. Students and parents can refresh the page at a constant clip, expecting a near immediate post. To them, the mark matters. It’s understandable. I remember being the same way in high school and college (minus the barrage of emails).  Last year a parent emailed me before I uploaded my grades asking if her daughter could retake the exam because she was beside herself and thought she did poorly (she got a B).

All of these observations lead me to the conclusion that my principal is right: we should rethink the role of exams. The exams must target the application of transferable problem solving and critical thinking skills. Lower level Depth of Knowledge (DOKs) questions must be avoided. The object of an exam should not be to test one’s ability to memorize, recall and regurgitate information. The focus, instead, should be on enduring understanding and ways of thinking. Knowledge production is the goal. Scholars , regardless of discipline or specialization, master these analytical and critical reasoning skills. That is the power and promise of public education. Our exams should support this aim.


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