Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Should "A" Students be Required to Take Final Exams?

The Warwick School Committee appointed Curriculum Steering Committee has recommended that all students be required to take and pass a final exam for each subject. To my knowledge, their report was not made public until yesterday, but word of their findings filtered to some in the public. As such, rumor preceded rationale and those who disagreed with the proposal immediately raised objections. The first such appeared to have been in the form of a letter to the editor of the Warwick Beacon by former Toll Gate student Bryan J. Fryc.
As a graduate of Toll Gate High School, I was very surprised upon coming home from college for the Thanksgiving holiday to hear that Toll Gate teachers had informed their students of the decision to do away with the policy that allows high school students with A averages to be exempt from final exams. Although the rationale behind the decision is likely based upon the idea that requiring all students to take final exams will benefit them in college, my experiences both at Toll Gate and now at Providence College lead me to believe that the change in the policy will not benefit the students.

As an economics major, I have learned the importance of incentives in motivating people to make many different decisions in life. During my four years at Toll Gate, I observed first hand that, for many students, the chief incentive to spend extra time studying for a test or to put a little more effort into a paper was not simply the grade, but the hope of being exempt from the final exam. Although one could argue that the grade itself should be incentive enough to try hard, for many high school students, the difference between an 89 B+ and a 90 A- is not quite as meaningful as the difference between taking and not taking an exam. However, the difference between the B+ and the A- is more pronounced on the transcript sent to colleges. In fact, in forcing all students to take wide-encompassing final exams, some of which are supposed to be uniform district-wide, a decline in cumulative grades is very likely. A poor performance on a single day could easily take away from an entire year of outstanding performance. If the exam incentive is removed, my experience would point to the likelihood that colleges will be seeing more B’s and fewer A’s on the transcripts of Warwick students.

Furthermore, the argument that students need to take final exams in order to be prepared for college is also flawed. Although I acknowledge the necessity of the development of good study skills, success in college depends on much more than simply studying. Most tests I take in college cover similar amounts of material to regular tests in high school. In terms of final exams, some professors consider them a pointless review and do not require them, while others simply use final exam periods to give a last, non-cumulative test. For classes that do require cumulative final exams, Warwick students are all required to practice covering one semester’s worth of material on the mid-term exams. In most cases, though, colleges are more concerned about a student’s writing skills, as term papers and projects often carry more weight than any exam.

Finally, the only students that will be affected by this change in policy are the students who are most proficient in the subject area, the students who have already proven their understanding of the subject. As a beneficiary of the past policy, my knowledge of the material did not suffer due to the fact that I did not have to study it twice. In forcing these students to take final exams, the schools are simply forcing them to spend time reviewing material that they have already been tested on and which they already have shown outstanding achievement. Shouldn’t Warwick schools be rewarding its top performing students instead of taking privileges away from them?
Al Demerjian writing a few days later, echoed many of Fryc's concerns:
Let me see if I’ve got this straight: parents and teachers try and instill at an early age the importance of academics and achievement, and at the end of the day those students who have labored, studied and produced over a full school year by earning an “A” in a particular subject have garnered the reward of not having to take the final exam. But now, the whole risk/reward, positive re-enforcement, build self-esteem rubric that this grading system was intended to build upon is being dismantled. You folks are clueless about the law of unintended consequences, not to mention the bond of trust you are about to obliterate.

Adding insult to injury is the prospect that honors and AP students, who already have a full plate, will now have added work loads in addition to AP exams, new SATs, and this is somehow going to improve grades and test scores by requiring more subject matter to cover? This is a specious argument and seriously flawed reasoning. This is more psycho-babble from several years ago when recognizing the Warwick high schools’ top 10 students in this newspaper was causing “undo harm and damaging self-esteem” for a small group of individuals. Sounds like political correctness run amuck once again.
So what exactly did the committee recommend? According to a story in the Beacon,
Victor D. Mercurio said Monday the change was the result of a recommendation from a curriculum advisory committee established by Superintendent Robert J. Shapiro and required no authorization from the School Committee before it was implemented...The decision, he detailed, was rendered in part because of changes in standards for graduation imposed by the Rhode Island Department of Education and requirements from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges that accredits Toll Gate, Pilgrim and Veterans Memorial High Schools. NEASC, said Mercurio, would be back for a reaccredidation process of all of the high schools in 2008.
The decision was outlined in a memorandum sent to Toll Gate High School:
“This practice [exempting A students from final exams] was initiated to reward students for good performance, but it has enabled an increasing number of students to graduate from high school without ever having the experience of preparing for and taking a two-hour final exam such as they will face in college,” the two administrators wrote.

In the memo, Mercurio and Shapiro both deferred the reasoning for changing the policy to “new regulations from the [DOE] will require demonstrations of proficiency that may include testing similar in nature to final exams. In the interest of providing all of our students with the best possible preparation for both high school and college level exams, all Warwick high school students will now participate in final exams at the end of each course.”
While the justifications given in the memo are sound, the problem I have is with the lack of public notification of the committee's findings. The memo gave an "early warning" of the imminent implementation of the proposal to a few people at Toll Gate High as well as those (such as Fryc) who were told of the measure. Unfortunately, the rest of the public was left to discern the exact nature of the proposal while being exposed to only the arguments of those opposed the measure. Only one side of the story was being told. It wasn't until the story published on the same day that the Curriculum Committee's recommendations were to be approved by the School Committee that the public was informed of the justifications for the proposal.

Setting the bad p.r. acumen of the Committee, though, their reasoning appears sound, if relatively unsupportable.
Mercurio argued that national studies have indicated that while many students might do well at the high school level, a majority of those same teenagers fail to survive the rigorous challenges in a post-secondary environment. The new state standards, Mercurio insisted, would create a baseline for every graduate to attain before they could receive a diploma.

Still, Mercurio admitted that he had no data that indicated students who maintained a straight A average in Warwick’s high schools failed to continue to perform well in college.

“No, not specifically,” he said.
Yikes. Before implementing a wide ranging policy, shouldn't all supporting evidence, including statistical, be available for review?

As happenstance would have it, I attended the School Committee meeting at which this topic was discussed. (I was there for another reason). The School Committee attempted to pass the recommendations, but students, teachers and parents all spoke up to object. While many disputed the efficacy of changing the requirements, the argument that was most persuasive was simply that the Committee shouldn't change the requirement in the middle of the school year. As a matter of fundamental fairness, I agree. Further, the closed nature of the Curriculum Committee's makeup and deliberations (no students, teachers or parents are on the committee, only administrators) only adds to the public suspicion. One committee member, in addition to citing the aforementioned reasoning, also mentioned the spectre of "grade inflation" as a reason for a standardized final exam. Unfortunately, he had no "facts" to support his assertion. While I don't doubt the possibility, the lack of supporting evidence was a grievious mistake. By the time the objections were heard, the Committee had decided to put the item up for review.

In this matter, at least for now, the system worked. Enough concerns were raised to prompt further review, but given the array of State and Federal requirements that are coming, I suspect that the testing will be put in place. While there are legitimate reasons to exempt high achieving students, there are equally legitimate reasons to discontinue the process. Thankfully, if belatedly, there appear to be areas of compromise, such as continuing to exempt students in Advance Placement or Honors classes. I'm still not sure where I stand on the subject, but I'll be attending the next meeting to see where things are heading.

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