Quite a bit of discussion sparked last week in the Montgomery County, Maryland community after a surprising announcement by the Montgomery County Board of Education to eliminate semester exams in middle and eventually high schools. The rationale stated that too much instruction time was being compromised by exam preparation, as well as uncertainty about the educational value of semester exams.
One local station, Fox 5-WTTG, encouraged viewers to tweet #GOODDAYDC on July 15th and express views. The tweets and anchors presented various opinions, even very emotional insight. And yes, I tweeted, ..Semester exams check long-term memory..what the student learned AND retained; quarter grades show short- term memory; bad idea!!
The following day, Fox 5 had an interview with a Montgomery County Teachers Union representative who said his group supports the Board of Education decision.
The question on the table is, are some districts allowing their schools and policies to become soft by caving in to complaining constituents? Some people will never be satisfied; it must be their way or no way. Oh sure, it would great to please everyone, but in reality, that’s just a dream; and, is it in the best interest of students? A popular comment to disgruntled high school students is, “Welcome to the real world.”
Middle school semester exams are not as numerous as high school; most commonly, mathematics and foreign/world language as justification for high school credit. High school exams include the five academics: English, math, science, social studies and foreign/world language with the possible inclusion of computer science and a few others, contingent on the district.
It’s still questionable as to the amount of compromised instruction time that’s being used to prepare for these exams. Personally, I never noticed it as a school counselor. Traditionally, students were given a study packet about a week or two, depending on the teacher, before the exams to review eighteen weeks of information. Obviously, effective study strategies were highly recommended to students starting the beginning of the semester so cramming would not be an option. Let’s call it preparation for college, since major exams are not given as frequently as in high school.
The first week of the semester, students should start reviewing several days a week in order to process the information and retain it for long-term memory. I found it helpful to use an analogy, that a teenager could relate to, when discussing repetition and its correlation with long-term memory. It helps also with short-term memory, for quarter evaluations, as well as long term assessments, such as semester exams. Learning is not just for today. Effective learning strategies allow information to stay with us for a long time; forever, if possible.
It’s critical to understand the mystery, “Why do some students get high quarter grades in their math course but lower grades on the semester exam?” They learned enough to get a respectable grade for the quarter(s), the first and/or second nine weeks, but could not retain the concepts and objectives for the duration of the semester, the entire eighteen weeks for the semester exam.
In a math course, that’s a concern, because this is the problem: lack of foundation in current class = challenges in next class
A helpful guide for semester exam review starts the first week of the term: freshmen 1-2 nights weekly; sophomores 2-3 nights weekly; juniors 3-4 nights weekly; seniors 4-5 nights weekly. As you notice, the increments increase yearly and the goal by 12th grade is hopefully, a disciplined student with effective study strategies and preparation for the educational independence of college. If not, matriculation might be short.
As mentioned, years ago, students were given study packets a week or two before the exams. However, more recently due to technology, study materials are available earlier on the district’s website for students to access and initiate independent reviews, individually or in groups. The assumption that test preparation is monopolizing class time is questionable.
Perhaps there is confusion with excessive test preparation for Advanced Placement (AP) Exams during class. This is not an uncommon practice during second semester.
We know about the many state mandated exams that middle and high school students take; and again, perhaps that’s consuming an enormous amount of instruction time, especially in the spring. But the districts have limited or no leverage in reducing the administrations due to graduation and/or competency requirements.
Currently, the exams are worth 25% of the semester grade. A reasonable compromise that the dividing camps are willing to support is a reduction in the value of an exam towards the semester grade. Perhaps the Board of Education can revisit their position and consider this option.
Regardless of the various opinions, everyone agrees that some form of evaluation is necessary to determine achievement. It’s a tool that can signal a lack of progress, gaps in learning, progressive development, and outstanding performance.