Rethinking High Stakes Exams

One has to ponder the question “why,” on many occasions.  A recent “why” has come to me this month as January is the mid-term point of the school year and most high schools are in the midst of exams that mark the end of term one.  “Finals” as they are called run for three weeks.  Three weeks of no classes, and no learning.  When we know better, why do we do this?  Why do we persist in this practice?

The ironic part is we know better.  We know that high stakes, final exams that provide no opportunity for feedback or further learning are not representative of a student’s knowledge or understanding, and do nothing to further a student’s knowledge or understanding which is arguably the point of school.

Students taking a test at the University of Vi...

Image via Wikipedia

An argument that is often launched for those who believe in and rely on final exams often goes something like this… “How will I know what they have learned, if I don’t give them an exam?  How will they prove that they have learned anything at all?”  To those, I offer up the following response:

  1.  Formative Evaluation – In his book Visible Learning by John Hattie, the effects of formative Evaluation were found to have a d = .90 or standard deviation of .90.  Hattie describes this effect size as, “…a 1.0 standard deviation increase is typically associated with advancing student children’s achievement by two to three years, improving the rate of learning by 50%…” (pp 7 of Visible Learning).  Thus, formative evaluation strategies in the classroom would not only give teachers information about what a student knows, but work to increase a student’s rate of learning by almost 50%.
  2. Self-reported Grades d=1.44 where Cohen argues, “…an effect size of d=1.0 should be regarded as a large, blatantly obvious, and grossly perceptible difference…” (pp 8 Visible Learning).  Hattie found that even without tests, “…high school students have a reasonably accurate understanding of their level of achievement… This should questions the necessity of so many tests when students appear to already have much of the information the tests supposedly provide…” (pp 44 Visible Learning).
  3. Feedback (d=.73).  “When teachers seek, or at least are open to feedback from students as to what a student knows, what they understand….then teaching and learning can be synchronized and powerful.” (pp 173 Visible Learning)

When assuming the reason for a final exam is to find out what students know or best case what students have learned, my question back to a teacher would be “Why don’t you already know?”  I believe that if effective teaching and learning practices such as formative evaluation, self-reported grades and feedback are consistently and appropriately utilized by teachers, a final exam would simply provide them with a weak, irrelevant example of what they already know.

Hattie, John, Visible Learning A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement, Routledge, 2009.

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