Final exams have historical origin

Katelyn Leano, News Editor

#2 pencil – check. Good night’s sleep – check. Quick prayer to the testing gods for help – check. Even though North students are still learning important material in their classes, first semester final exams are quickly approaching.

Final exams, also known as cumulative assessments, are considered an essential tool for many schools.

In the “Handbook on Undergraduate Curriculum,” author Arthur Levine indicates that “exams, in one form or another, have been a part of higher education in America since the very beginning. Students attending Harvard in the 1640s, shortly after the college was founded, were required to take both entrance and graduation exams.”

These comprehensive oral examinations were considered a resourceful way to test a student’s ability to retain material. The purpose was simply to memorize text.

“These ‘recitations,’ as they were called, were despised by students, required almost no intellectual analysis, and became increasingly hard to manage as college enrollment climbed and class sizes grew,” according to John R. Thelin, author of “A History of American Higher Education. “Consequently, in the 1830s, Yale and Harvard began introducing written biennial tests. The notion spread, and by the late 19th century, such exams had become accepted practice on many campuses.”

The format of the exams changed from oral to written assessments. Additionally, with the advent of American high schools beginning in the 17th century, having secondary education students taking a version of a cumulative assessment was adopted.

The purpose of these new exams was to test a student’s ability to not just memorize material, but instead, to comprehend it.

“I think the benefits of taking final exams is that it gives students a reason to retain and soak up all the information that was taught to them throughout the semester,” English teacher Yonika Willis said.

Special education resource teacher Kim Carbonneau concurs. “Cumulative assessments show what information students have mastered and what information they have not yet been able to retain.”

Since a semester final exam measures all the skills and material that is covered over 18 weeks, students know that it is important to consistently pay attention and be observant every day until they take the final exam. Thus, students take more responsibility for making sure that they know the material.

“It tests how well [I] can retain and understand knowledge in units,” freshman Christa Vaghese said.

World Geography teacher Elizabeth Mays agrees. “When a student knows he or she will have a comprehensive exam at the end of the semester, they tend to take more responsibility for their learning.”

Some students even see final exams as a way to boost their 18-week grades. It becomes possible to earn a desired semester grade because of the weight of the exam.

“It can sometimes improve your grade, and it can help you remember information you learned earlier,” sophomore Rachel Leigh said.

Because of Common Core requirements, all Plainfield high school students take multiple district assessments throughout a school year. This is in addition to a final exam. Building strong study skills and retaining information for any high stakes test is a good ability to master.

“It… helps you learn how to prepare for an important test,” precalculus teacher Shannon Yoesle said.

According to Nate Kornell, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at Williams College in his article entitled “Study Better: the Benefits of cumulative Exams” published in Psychology Today, “Recent evidence suggests that simply telling students that there will be a cumulative final may enhance their learning….the findings suggest that how we process and store knowledge depends on how long we expect to need to know it.”

The merits of the centuries-old tradition of taking cumulative assessments is starting to be questioned, though. Some schools have even gone so far as to eliminate the exams or at least give teachers a choice to give them or not.

“In the spring term at Harvard last year, only 259 of the 1,137 undergraduate courses had a scheduled final exam, the lowest number since 2002,” according to Jay M. Harris, dean of undergraduate education in the article “Final Exams Are Quietly Vanishing from College.” “…the shrinking role of big, blockbuster tests at Harvard and colleges elsewhere is raising serious pedagogical questions about 21st century education: How best do students learn?  And what is the best way to assess that?”

Now that information is so easily accessible for students, experts are questioning the need for final exams. Through his research, Robert Bangert-Drowns, dean of the school of education at the University of Albany SUNY believes that smaller tests spread out over the course of a semester is better than one final assessment.

“There’s nothing magical about finals,” Bangert-Drowns said. “They can be arbitrary and abstract — an inauthentic gauge of what someone knows. Research, by Bangert-Drowns and others, shows that frequent testing is more beneficial.”

There is no consistency in the scope or weight of final exams in neighboring districts.  Bolingbrook High School offers 105 minute exams which count as 25% of a student’s semester grade.  At Oswego High School, on the other hand, the weight of the exam varies according to the department, and each exam is 90 minutes.

The debate over the validity of cumlative assessments will likely continue. For now, North students will be preparing for their finals held on Dec. 19-21.

“If you don’t study, it can affect your grade,” freshman Abby Sicca said.