Memos from the Middle

Smack-Dab in the Middle of Living

The Truth about High School Final Exams

No, this is not my graduating class. Quit playing! (image from

Remember being a teenager in the last days of May or the early days of June? Remember sitting in that chair with the wooden desk attached to the metal connecting arm? Remember the smell of the paper freshly Xeroxed? Remember how sometimes that paper was still warm to the touch? Remember the extra pointy number 2 pencils resting expectantly in front of you as you questioned whether you should have gotten up a bit earlier to get in some last minute cramming before that chemistry exam? Remember how you prayed ever more fervently because you did not want to end up in some non-air conditioned classroom for the better part of the summer? I do, and while I was never in any real danger of failing a class (my mother would have kicked my butt if I even contemplated earning low grades), I was always a little more freaked out about exams at the end of a term.

For the last two days, I’ve watched students intently as they took their final exams. Not because I’m some strangely paranoid educator getting my jollies by catching a kid cheat, but because I’m embarking on a career move that will take me out of the classroom, and I’m already feeling nostalgic about my days teaching. I see the faces of young men and women who believe in varying degrees that these exams will determine a lot more about their academic futures than they really do. Here are some truths about these tests.

  1. High school final exams, at least at my school, only amount to between 7 and 15 percent of a student’s ending average, so unless a kid was failing or near failing just before taking the exam, chances are, a score above zero won’t result in a summer session with a teacher too poor or too lonely to do something else. This is not college, after all, where some professors still give merely a midterm and a final exam to determine grades. There’s homework, class work, projects, presentations, quizzes, papers, and in some cases, participation that all factor in to how well a kid’s grade will look.
  2. Any teacher worth his/her salt will know within a five point swing how a kid will score on a final exam. The truth is that teacher has read and graded everything students’ have done, so kids’ work and progress along the way is a pretty good indication of the scores they will eventually earn. Every now and then there are a few surprises, but most kids fall right in line with what they’ve done all along. While it is in poor taste for educators to say things like, “It’ll be a cold day in hell before you get an A on that final,” we saw that 46% coming when Little Johnny slept through that lecture a month ago or blew off that unit project in favor of a Modern Warfare gaming marathon with his friends.
  3. Whip those eggs into a frenzy, kiddos. I’m expecting great things from you on that eggs-am! (image from

    Teachers are more anxious about kids’ performances than the kids themselves. In this age of competition, data, and accountability, teachers want and need proof that their teaching methods are effective. A bunch of kids failing a final exam is one giant middle finger raised stiffly in the face of a teacher and is a major red flag to administrators. Did the teacher have some impossibly high standards (e.g., teaching quantum physics to third graders)? Were the standards appropriate but the teaching methods inappropriate? Was the teacher really tapping into the diverse needs of her students?  On the other hand, a large number of A’s proves that 1) nothing new or challenging was presented to students, 2) there is a major grade inflation problem that needs to be addressed, 3) the exam answer key was stolen and distributed to kids, or 4) that test was too darn easy. Needless to say, there needs to be some realistic, credible middle ground.

  4. Don’t worry, sweetie! There’s always summer school. (image from

    “Summer school is easier.” A former student, and probable future politician. said this to me last year. “Why would I spend 10 months agonizing over this when I could take the two-week intensive summer school class and pass with an A or B?” While there are lots of reasons why this thinking is flawed (the negative effect on grade point average, the lack of information/skills garnered in the summer versus the regular academic year, the embarrassment a mother feels when her “gifted” child earns F’s in “easy” courses), the fact remains that summer school really is easier. So if a kid does happen to fail that final and fail that class, chances are that summer school teacher isn’t power teaching that course.


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4 thoughts on “The Truth about High School Final Exams

  1. Need big hair and a headband. Happy shopping

  2. Alice on said:

    What was that you slipped in there all innocent like????

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