Thursday, June 18, 2009

Final Exams and High-Stakes Opportunities

Today was the last day of final exams for my students.

As someone who struggles mightily with high-stakes testing (I had to take the SATs five times to get a decent score, my GRE math score was in the third percentile which was fortunately overshadowed by my ninetieth percentile language score, and so on), I find myself questioning the veracity of putting kids under the proverbial gun as the school year winds to a close and there are various other things hanging over their heads. I decided this year to make the most relevant final exam possible.

My final consisted of three parts--a multiple choice section, a formal essay due on the day of the exam that had been assigned two weeks earlier (drafts were strongly encouraged), and reading a short selection and writing a "Found Poem" on it. The multiple choice component was focused on The House on Mango Street, To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men, and Romeo and Juliet and included an element of reading assessment and test-taking strategies. What this means is that students willing to take their time, read carefully, and synthesize information given out in various questions did very well on this.

The found poem was intended to assess on-the-spot reading and taking out what was important. Not surprisingly, this was considered the easiest part of the exam for my students.

And then ... the essay. My hope was that students would use the two weeks to create drafts or, at the very least, to put some thought into what they would slam out the night before. To be fair, a number of students did this. Several went so far as to provide me four or five drafts of their essay over the last week and a half, I gave them feedback, and their essays are unbelievable. The kiddos that worked the essay are the ones that received the highest scores on the overall final exam grade. However ... the number of students that seized this opportunity was just not as high as I would have hoped.

I am myself a world-class procrastinator, so I guess I can understand the lack of enthusiasm for doing multiple voluntary drafts. I just wish that there was some way to demonstrate to kids that, if you aren't able to pull off the last-second magic, you should probably emulate the workhorse.

This post is nowhere near as clear, concise, and (I admit it) interesting as it sounded in my head. However, I needed to get back on the blogging horse, so I guess I accomplished that, at least :).

What do you think of final exams for high school students? Are they worthwhile or a waste of time? Are they similar in value to high-stakes tests like the SAT, the GRE, and (for us educators) the PRAXIS? Does this really mean anything?