Students, teachers, and administrators discuss alternatives to semester-end, paper-and-pencil tests

by Hannah Shi and Sophie Yang, ’19

As semester exam season approaches, many students will study late into the night for a two-hour test that determines their mastery over four months. However, some experts have started questioning whether exams are effective, and many support alternatives like multiple smaller tests or “final projects.”

UAHS Principal Andrew Theado said that there are a variety of ways to assess if students have learned the material for a course.

“Some content and skills are assessed better through a paper-pencil test, and some content and skills are assessed better through other assessments,” Theado said.

In subjects that are difficult to test traditionally, like visual arts or music, UAHS often uses alternative methods like semester-end projects. For example, in orchestra classes, students work in small groups to perform a piece of holiday music: the performance is entered as a semester exam grade.

Theado believes that it is important to have a balance between semester exams and projects.

“I think that different subjects lend themselves to different types of assessments,” Theado said. “I think a mix [of semester exams and projects] is good… I would worry about swinging one way or the other.”

“I think that different subjects lend themselves to different types of assessments… I would worry about swinging one way or the other.” 
—Principal Andrew Theado

According to Theado, teams of teachers decide the exams or projects for certain courses or a certain group of courses. However, teachers generally place a grade equivalent to an exam — worth 20 percent of a semester grade — in order to keep grades consistent. Global language classes are among the courses that convert their own system — holistic grading — to the traditional A through E grading scale.

The global language department regularly tests students on their cumulative knowledge in reading, writing, listening, and speaking. For this reason, language tests don’t always fit into the traditional semester exam system.

“Something like a writing [test] or a listening [test] would not take two hours,” Duarte said. “For some [other] courses, it is about accumulative comprehension. You have to know… everything that you’ve covered throughout the whole time since quarter one. The thing is, for a language, you have to know those concepts [to move forward] anyway.”

Although global language exams are also sit-down tests, they’re originally graded on the holistic scale from 1-9. In addition, they are more naturally cumulative, and a shorter time between tests makes them similar to quarterly tests.

(Photo illustration courtesy Learningsure) Students write into their notebooks as part of a semester exam. Short and long answer questions are a common feature of traditional tests.

In the quarterly test system, exams are placed at the end of each quarter rather than each semester. Though they are not administered at UAHS, the system has been used in several other districts, such as Newark, where UAHS counselor Matt Biedenbach worked in the past.

“There was a time in Newark… where they gave quarterly exams,” Biedenbach said, “and they would fit into a class period.”

Though quarterly exams could be less stressful, some negative effects are that they do not prepare students for higher education as well as semester exams.

“It may not prepare you for college,” Biedenbach said. “In college, you’re going to have 15 weeks of material to remember, and you’re going to take a two-and-a-half hour exam.”

However, despite semester exams being more similar to what students would encounter in college, the amount of stress accompanying semester exams can be detrimental toward their overall grade.

Junior Cindy Tang, who has experienced semester projects, language tests, as well as sit-down exams, believes that multiple traditional sit-down exams can harm a student’s grade through stress.

“Because there are so many [exams] together, some kids might be stressed [and] not be able to study as much, so it could potentially destroy their grade,” Tang said.

“Because there are so many [exams] together, some kids might be stressed [and] not be able study as much… it could potentially destroy their grade.”
—Junior Cindy Tang

Tang believes that a possible solution to this could be varying types of semester exam grades, such as projects or presentations.

“I think [the stress] would be better if people had to take one test, and then a project, and then a presentation, something like that… just vary it a little bit,” Tang said.

Overall, both administrators and students seem to be in favor of a mix between traditional tests and alternatives.

While Theado doesn’t completely support moving away from paper-pencil tests, he said that many teachers are recognizing the stress of tests and benefits of giving projects instead.

“I support lessening [traditional paper-and-pencil tests] and having assessments that are more real-life or assessed differently,” Theodo said, “We can alleviate some of that stress or anxiety over [the] tests,”