Don’t scrap final exams—some stress is good for students

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Appeared in the Ottawa Citizen, February 18, 2023
Don’t scrap final exams—some stress is good for students

What did high school students do during exam week? For many students in Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB), the answer is nothing. That’s right, they did nothing. From January 24 to 30 this year, Grade 9 and 10 students had the entire week off (unless their teachers asked them to come in to finish incomplete work).

According to the OCDSB, the district got rid of exams to better support the mental health and well-being of students. Since exam writing is stressful, the school board removed that stress by scrapping exams. It’s an interesting approach, which leads to some rather bizarre conclusions.

For example, should we get rid of driving tests since prospective drivers obviously feel stress prior to taking them? Or perhaps we should abolish bar exams for lawyers and medical licencing exams for doctors. After all, the last thing we want is for our future doctors and lawyers to feel stress. Imagine how much more relaxed society would become if no one ever had to write a test or exam. Obviously, this is absurd.

But no less absurd than abolishing exams for high school students and giving them the week off school. With extended school closures over the last few years (Ontario schools were closed longer than any other jurisdiction in North America), students have missed enough school. If they aren’t going to write final exams, the OCDSB should at least make sure students are in class.

Sadly, when it comes to exams, OCDSB is not an outlier. Other Ontario school boards have also moved to abolish or deemphasize final exams. According to a memo to staff last year, assessment officials with the Toronto District School Board plan to “decolonize” assessment practises. Among other things, teachers are strongly encouraged to find ways to assess students other than through final exams. This could include anything from writing an essay to letting them create a TikTok video about what they learned.

In case you’re wondering, don’t expect Ontario’s Ministry of Education to step in and correct the situation. Provincial officials confirmed last year that school boards are now free to modify or even abolish final exams. So instead of reigning in rogue school boards, the Ford government is actively encouraging them to throw out anything that resembles traditional education. No wonder many high school graduates are ill-prepared for post-secondary education and the world of work. Because not all stress is harmful. Most people know that a certain amount of stress is required to get things done. In most occupations, employees face at least moderate levels of stress, and this can serve as a powerful motivator to get a job done and to do it well.

Thus, there’s nothing wrong with students feeling some anxiety prior to writing an exam. For many students, a moderate level of anxiety can be a powerful motivator for careful preparation, for reviewing material, and for practising key skills. These are good habits for everyone to develop.

Finally, a significant number of students will enroll in post-secondary education after they graduate, and universities have certainly not abolished exams. It would be unfortunate indeed if students never experience a final exam prior to their first year of university. While schools obviously do more than just prepare students for university, they shouldn’t do less than that.

Teachers use a variety of methods to assess their students, but exams administered at the end of a course remain the most accurate, efficient and fair method of determining whether students have learned the course material. Contrary to what many Ontario school board officials appear to think, it’s still important for students to write final exams. This would be a better use of their time than sitting at home for a week playing video games.

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