Should SPS Reintroduce Midterms and Finals?
April 11, 2023
Among many other changes, COVID-19 saw the end of midterms and finals throughout the Stamford Public School system. Now that all restrictions have been lifted, two students make their cases for and against the return of midterms as the debate resurfaces.
Midterms and Finals are Worthwhile
The class of 2023 is woefully unprepared for college, and for once it is by no fault of our own. This past month marked the third year of no midterms for Stamford High, and this June will be the fourth year of no finals. The district’s decision to indefinitely suspend midterm and final examinations in 2021 following the initial suspension due to the academic disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic has been defined by a multifaceted array of excuses.
Initially, the moratorium was justified by the district with talks of student stress and fragility as a result of the pandemic, but associate superintendent Amy Beldotti believes “we had curriculum instruction and assessment challenges and needs before COVID ever happened.” While it would be remiss not to recognize the district’s flaws before the pandemic, this decision has been a step in the wrong direction.
For many seniors, this year is not the end of their educational pursuits. In college or any post-secondary education, grades will be mostly if not solely determined by their performance on large-scale cumulative examinations. High School semesterly exams are a fair and accurate measure of a student’s academic knowledge and understanding of curricula without the expensive stakes of college credit. Historically, midterms and finals counted for 10% of a student’s final grade. In college, there is a good chance they account for over 70% of your grade. High School midterms ease students into the feeling of taking major tests that can set them apart academically and prepare them for other forms of testing like work certification exams, AP exams, the SATs, ACTs, MCATs, LSATs, etc. Since the beginning of the pandemic and the increase in test-optional facilities, the amount of ‘grade inflation’ occurring in schools has grown immensely. Since testing has been removed as a factor of high school GPA, the average high school GPA, according to ACT, had “increased 0.19-grade points, from 3.17 in 2010 to 3.36 in 2021” while math and English proficiency rates have stalled and even declined in some areas.
Many consider the disparity between testing and grades a poor reflection on the practice, but this portrayal ignores the objectivity of testing as a balance to the often subjective world of grading. With tests, teachers are given a clear end goal to achieve with their classroom instruction. This methodology has been criticized as encouraging people to “teach to the test,” citing a decline in academic freedom. Academic freedom, however, is often a stand-in for the more accurate phrase of academic inconsistency. In college, students will not be able to fail a test and still get an A in the semester, exploit the kindness of teachers or the loopholes of extra credit, and instead will have to take a test, write a paper or do a presentation.
Testing anxiety as a concern is also largely overblown and nothing more than a self-fulfilling prophecy. The longer we prevent kids from testing for concerns of “testing anxiety,” the more they are implanted with the idea that tests are something that one can reasonably stress over. If the district truly cared to ease the anxiety of students, it would foster a testing-positive environment. Giving students a chance to demonstrate their knowledge gives them the necessary skills to overcome their yips, and, as of now, they must if they wish to pursue any form of higher education.
Beyond all of this discussion on the necessity of tests, due to higher education tests themselves hold merit. These tests are a fair assessment of a student’s knowledge and the myth that a student is a “poor tester” ignores that, even if that were to be true, what use is knowledge if it cannot be applied? Tests give feedback to students and teachers on exactly what they misunderstood and long-form papers allow students to see where they can convey themselves in a better manner. Midterms also allow counselors and teachers to truly seed out students who don’t belong in higher level classes or could handle the intensified workload. This data allows for a far more personalized education than is hindered by “teaching to the test.” Yes, no one wants to get a bad test grade, but a class must result in some learning. Say, for example, you take the state-mandated civics course offered at every school in Connecticut. At the end of the course, you are required to take a final that consists of the citizenship test which is required of immigrants seeking citizenship. If you take a civics course and cannot pass that test, you have failed to acquire the knowledge in that class. The same goes for math, if you were to be assessed on your ability to factor and graph equations and you couldn’t do that on a test then have you earned your grade in that class? The simple answer is no and educators and parents need to own up to the fact that we can’t coddle the GPA desires of every student.
The clear call for our board of education is to end the showmanship and listen to our students who are suffering during their freshman years of college and contribute to the nearly 56% of students who drop out of university.
SPS Should Not Bring Back Midterms and Finals
Students hate midterms and finals, and with good reason – they waste time, they’re stressful, and they don’t help students learn. Now the Stamford Board of Education finally agrees.
The BOE’s elimination of midterms and finals has enhanced learning opportunities throughout the district’s middle and high schools. Its decision, part of a nationwide trend, is reflective of a new and improved approach to learning being implemented in Stamford Public Schools that maximizes both class time and students’ opportunities to succeed.
There are numerous reasons to cheer this change. First, midterms and finals take valuable learning time away from students. At a handful of other schools in Fairfield County that have maintained the midterm and finals format, as many as seven days are dedicated to reviewing and testing every semester – an excessive amount of time that could be better spent on active curriculum learning or more expansive assessment methods such as projects or extended papers.
There are alternative means of evaluating students’ cumulative knowledge which help them learn more thoroughly instead of punishing hard workers who are not gifted test-takers. Moreover, such students don’t necessarily have the opportunity to learn from their mistakes. Test corrections are not available on exams of this scale (especially since finals mark the last days of attendance for many students), and therefore the information students failed to prepare for continues to go unlearned. On the other hand, final projects and papers that are corrected and can be revised with teachers before their due date grant students an opportunity to learn instead of being punished for not remembering specifics in a potentially high-stress environment.
Furthermore, testing measures the amount of information a student is able to memorize for the short term rather than the long term. Scores can be indicative of hard work, but homework, classwork, and regular assessments (such as unit tests and projects) are far more accurate in gauging the continuous effort a student puts into their studies.
“I have no freaking idea what Champa Rice is,” said Hannah Schager, Carnegie Mellon University freshman, upon being asked about an integral part of the AP World History curriculum that she went through only three short years ago. Another college freshman, Alex Rubin at Northwestern University, claimed he knew “absolutely nothing” about Von Thunen’s model (an integral point necessary to succeed on an AP Human Geography cumulative exam). It’s not for lack of hard work that students forget this information; rather, it’s a lack of incentive for them to retain the material.
After high school, many students either directly enter the professional world or attend college before getting a job in a field of their choosing. In both scenarios, employers will be inclined to hire the candidate willing to dedicate the most time and energy to their work. They are looking for precision, attention to detail and teamwork skills – none of which are comprehensively assessed by midterms and finals. However, final projects can measure these skills while also demonstrating how much actual information the student has retained throughout the unit or semester.
Additionally, certain students crawl through the school year with half-finished late assignments, but engage in 24-hour cramming sessions before summative tests and still pass their classes. Those grades move on to their college transcripts, and universities and jobs end up accepting and hiring students who aren’t the hard workers that their record suggests. While these students have their grades unreasonably inflated, those with test anxiety are unfairly disadvantaged. Very rarely in the professional world will individuals be in a test-like environment – people are much more likely to demand hard work and dedication than the skills that help students answer test questions under arbitrary time constraints.
Even so, many colleges and universities in the U.S. employ midterms and finals. For this reason, one might assume that students should learn how to prepare for them in high school. However, there are two problems with this line of thinking. First, some kids don’t attend college, so becoming a test-taking whiz is only useful until they earn their high-school diploma. Second, even if kids do seek secondary education, anyone who becomes a humanities major is likely to be evaluated on projects and essays in place of the sorts of typical tests employed by high schools.
Most importantly, the best way to handle this issue is to make midterms and finals an optional college preparedness choice. Some students choose to take AP exams in UConn ECE classes when they’re not required, simply for the score; some choose to enroll in AP classes instead of honors, despite the honors teacher being favored by most alumni; some choose to retake the SAT numerous times instead of sticking with their score from the state mandated exam. Students should be allowed to opt into a test if they think it’s worth it for their transcript, despite all of the aforementioned negatives. However, like an AP exam score, it should be separate from their regular class grade and GPA.
The Stamford BOE’s decision to abolish midterms and finals reflected the best interests of all SPS students, and should be a model for other districts in order to support expansive and long-term learning.