Psychologists have a quip about IQ tests the only thing they measure is your ability to do IQ tests. They are not, as they purport to be, an objective measure of intelligence, like the air temperature of a room. Rather, they are variable, and vulnerable to luck and circumstance, like the score of a hockey game.
Exams are the same. They are cruel in their way, in their pose as objective measures of a student’s worth.
If hockey were so dependent on luck and circumstance, surely the Maple Leafs would be better than 29-43-7, and a dismal 8-27-5 on the road.
But that’s not really the point. This is:
We show what we know when we can remember information when prompted. Writing essays and doing projects display communication skills and an understanding of concepts, but, without committing the content to memory, I’m not convinced we can say we’ve learned it. If you can’t tell me anything about WWI when it happened, who was involved, worldwide implications… without looking at your notes, then you don’t know anything about it. Then when you watch Downton Abbey, and a date flashes on the screen, “June 1914,” you have to look it up to grasp the significance. It’s useful to know things, and it’s useful to our society if everyone has a common knowledge of basic facts about history, geography, multiplication tables, the carbon cycle … Without a display of memory, we can’t assess learning. And a good test or exam can be a clear indicator of knowledge.
So why not just have tests without a final exam? The nice thing about exams is that kids do them. They don’t whine or try to bargain or chat or even think of taking out their phones during exams. Because exams are held up to a higher standard, and the whole school stops for a week for them to happen, and the kids only get one kick at the cat, students take exams more seriously than tests. I’ve had in-class tests with a third of the class AWOL then had to spend days tracking them and getting them to write a make-up. I once had a student take a make-up test home for three days to write it, and I was instructed that I had to count it because he showed he knew the content ignoring the obvious fact that he had ample opportunity to Google the material. For exams, they all show up and do the work. Period.
Furthermore, while one should certainly be concerned with a student’s worth, I’d argue that one should be substantially less concerned with the student’s perception of her worth. There are those who think it’s the instructor’s job to cover the class with a shiny veneer of self-esteem, the way one might spritz PAM on a saucepan. Yes, exams are stressful. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t be worth bothering with.