Upcoming exams spur discussions about their true functions

One week. 

That’s the amount of time that lies between today and the day that students at FHC will start taking their first semester exams. While students normally take their exams a week or two after their holiday break, this year, they find themselves tasked with the challenge before they leave. 

This new change has brought stress upon many, but the schedule change is far from the only cause of the stress that has been looming in the hallways of FHC. 

“The most stressful thing is definitely the amount of work that needs to be done and the volume of material to be reviewed,” senior Katie Willemin said. “Because I have six different classes that require me to know a semester’s worth of material. Making time for reviewing it all and having to know so much in many classes is stressful.”

Katie’s stress about exams comes as no surprise, seeing as she is currently taking orchestra, French, and four AP courses, one of which is online. Still, stress is far from the only complaint that arises from exams. 

When thinking of an exam, a certain standard may come to mind: students sitting in neat rows with Scantrons in front of them among a slew of other papers, working diligently against a time limit. But why?

“I think that the idea of an exam is for kids to have to demonstrate that they know a wide variety of things coming from a subject area,” math teacher Rebecca Lipke said. “If you can go ahead and figure out a project or some sort of a presentation or assessment that kids can do, that can [continue] that. Awesome.”

Like most other math teachers, Lipke’s exams are pretty standard with the base being made up of both multiple-choice and short-answer questions. Katie and Lipke both agree—this standard works pretty well for math classes, as these questions are able to efficiently test the math skills learned. 

In other classes, however, this standard might not be the ideal. Every subject varies in its content and structure, and the best type of exam for each may not be the same. In English, for example, Katie believes that a standard exam may not be able to effectively do what an exam is supposed to do: help the teacher make sure that the student understands what they’re teaching. 

“I think, because of the nature of the material [in some classes], that it’s hard to use standard exams and formal tests as a way to gauge a student’s learning,” Katie said. “I can walk in and answer multiple-choice questions about a book, but my English teacher wouldn’t understand if I had fully comprehended the book in the way that she had wanted me to. It maybe [doesn’t provide] the best, deepest understanding of the student’s learning, and that’s a major disadvantage.”

Despite these disadvantages, it isn’t to say that these standard exams aren’t useful even in situations where they may not seem ideal. 

After high school, most FHC graduates don’t just leave their educational careers behind; the large majority head onto college to continue on their career paths. There, students don’t leave behind their days of sitting down to anxiously take exams, and the situation only intensifies. Keeping this in mind, Lipke must make sure that her students will be prepared for such an environment. 

“I feel like standard exams serve another purpose,” Lipke said. “Oftentimes they’re a lot of this type of format where there’s multiple-choice, short answer, essay, [and] those types of things. One of the things that taking the exams in high school does is help kids learn how to process large quantities of information, learn how to study for something of that magnitude, and learn how to deal with their anxieties and anxiousness about something of this big of a caliber.”

Even with this purpose in mind, however, some classes still don’t fully lend themselves to a standard exam. French teacher Laurie Van Houten has gone through multiple styles of teaching and testing, and she has come out with the best method for her and her students: the IPA.

I think that we have to widen what exam means. In my humble opinion, although I’ve always been a rule follower and like the idea of exams, I think that we have to let teachers do the art of teaching and know what is right for their students.”

— Laurie Van Houten

Short for Integrated Performance Assessment, IPAs are a type of testing used in language learning that goes beyond checking whether or not a student can do something on paper. Comprised of speaking, reading, writing, and presenting portions, the IPA delves deeper to check a student’s understanding, and in recent years, Van Houten has started to replace her French exams with IPAs, and she’s seen the effects of the decision. 

“I know that my students are more engaged,” Van Houten said. “They’re a lot less stressed because it’s really hard to study for an IPA. You either know it or you don’t. What the IPA has done that is amazing to me is it lets kids show what they do know instead of penalizing them for what they don’t know.”

Not only are Van Houten’s French students less stressed, but with the implementation of IPAs, they’ve also become more confident in reading and speaking, an effect that has reached Katie, who is currently taking French III. Although Katie has never learned French without IPAs, she is glad to have reaped the benefits of this new system. 

“With IPAs, it’s better because you’re not as stressed about your grade, and your grade isn’t as bad because of the grading,” Katie said. “You can get something wrong and still get a high grade, which mirrors life and an actual conversation more because a native speaker is still going to understand you even if you make a few mistakes.”

For French students at FHC, the IPA system has brought its many benefits to create an environment that allows students to learn with greater potential. 

But just because a non-traditional style of testing has worked for French doesn’t necessarily mean that all other classes should switch it up as well. For the time being, most colleges continue to utilize the traditional exams that come to mind upon mentioning the topic.

If more and more classes move away from these more standard exams, a risk is taken: the risk that students will be less prepared for what their futures bring. 

“I feel like we have to be careful about turning everything over to alternative forms of assessments, and I do feel like we lose something in that,” Lipke said. “If [teachers] in high school never made you take any exams of this format, we wouldn’t be preparing you for what it is that you’re going to see next. I feel like if we did away with all of that, we would be doing a disservice to our students. Is it possible for some people here and there to change up an assessment that they used to give with this project that incorporates the same stuff? Absolutely. I feel like there could definitely be a healthy mixture.”

As complaints about exams roll in, it’s important to keep in mind the vast array of both advantages and disadvantages to every type of exam, whether they be a traditional exam, a big project, or a French IPA. 

What it goes back to, though, is why the students are taking these exams in the first place: to help teachers understand their students’ understanding. 

“I think that we have to widen what exam means,” Van Houten said. “In my humble opinion, although I’ve always been a rule follower and like the idea of exams, I think that we have to let teachers do the art of teaching and know what is right for their students. Seven years ago, [what I’m doing] wouldn’t have been right for my students, but I’m doing what’s right for my students this year.”