Say NO to Drugs! Oh, and Final Exams!

I’m in a happy place at this time of the year, mostly because my Middle School dispensed with the giving of final exams about five years ago.  How did that happen?  Well, I’ll tell you.

I was sitting at my desk one fine June afternoon, crafting a masterful exemption list….and feeling like I wanted to vomit.  For you see, there are three types of students in any given classroom:

1)  The ones who know they made the list, so they aren’t worried.   You did a fantastic job all year and probably don’t need to be worried about being “ready” for high school because you have clearly demonstrated your ability to be a good student.  You don’t need the added pressures of a “final exam” to prove your worth.  Here, let me escort you to the exit.  Can I carry that backpack for you while I’m at it?

2)  The ones who know there isn’t a chance in hell that they made the list so they don’t care.

You haven’t tried all year.  You’ve barely turned in an assignment and failed just about every test I’ve given you this year…so why not throw one more onto your pile.  Hey, it’s not like we’re expecting any miracles here.  You aren’t suddenly going to pass but I thought I’d give you one last chance to prove your unworthiness after having not listened to me all year long.

3)  The ones who are so close they can taste it…but just aren’t sure….. 

Oooooh, sorry about that.  Geez, I know you tried really hard.  And I also know that you were desperately hoping for a reprieve, but you just missed the mark this time.  And yes it’s likely you’ll score lower on this final because statistically students who write cumulative year long exams score lower.  And I really hope this doesn’t hurt your self esteem  And try a little harder next year so that you make it, hey?  What’s that?  You need a little more salt?


It’s group three that was making me ill.  Because it’s these kids who are going to give me the crest fallen look when I tell them the cut off was 80% and their 75% was close, but not close enough.  And because I was feeling so sick over it, I couldn’t even bare to give them the bad news in person so I simply posted the list on the bulletin board and waited for them to find out on their own.  Rather cowardly of me I’ll admit, but I figure I was going to ruin the lives of at least five or six of my students that day – why add the janitor to that list as well?

I used to get ulcers over the whole “exemption list” thing.  So at a staff meeting one day I asked this question, “Why do we make these kids write finals anyways?”

And you know what?  No one had a good answer.  In fact, we all sat there staring at each other and finally another teacher said, “Because we’ve always done it that way.”

TTWADI – That’s the way we’ve always done it.

Sorry, that just isn’t good enough for me anymore.


I’ve been talking with other teachers who are in the process of giving final exams. They are in different school and different districts but it’s amazing how many conversations go the exact same way.

“Thank God classes are over,” they tell me.

“Yes, but now you have to mark all those final exams,” I respond.

“Oh…I don’t really mark those.  I mean I kind of do, but I just don’t have time to mark them all properly before report cards come out.”

I pause.  Blink twice.  And then try to keep a straight face when I ask, “Then why do you give them?”

Here are the variety of answers I got:

1)  “Parents want them.”

Why?  To prepare kids for high school?  Sorry, that’s just not good enough for me anymore as an answer.  Parents would also love to have weekly phone calls updating them on the progress of their child, daily report cards, and guaranteed A’s.  They’d also love it if you could sign an affidavit saying you promise that their children will graduate with honours and be guaranteed a job with a six figure salary upon graduation.  Or at least entry into the college/university of their child’s choosing.

Why don’t we do these things?  Because they don’t make any sense!  Parent might want final exams but do they understand WHY they want final exams?  Have you taken the time to explain to them why final exams might not be necessary?

2)  “I need something to show me where they are at the end of the year.”

I’m sorry if I offend you when I say this…but if you need a final exam to show you where your student is after having spent an entire year/semester with them…you’re doing it wrong.  To confirm?  Possibly…but that should be it.  And is there some other way you could gain that confirmation?  A better way?  An engaging way? A meaningful way?

3)  “It gives the kids something to keep them focused at the end of the year so they don’t drive me completely crazy.”

Ah, I see.  In fact this is the only reason I see as being the most truthful one.  You need crowd control.  Something to keep them in line so you don’t pull your hair out by the roots.  While I see the psychological stand point of this argument…I’m sorry, but I don’t agree with you either.  You’re gaining your two hours of quiet peaceful bliss at the stressed out expense of your student and that’s just wrong.

4)  “The kids don’t care anyways.  They were done with school back in May.”

Ummm, ok?  Didn’t you just prove my point then?

Obviously there’s a fair amount of sarcastic humour to this post and if I offended anyone by it then I apologize.  Perhaps it’s because I’m very bitter and cynical when it comes to the topic of final exams and specifically the issue of giving exemption for finals.

Basically what I believe comes down to this:

Testing may give you a firm grade you can use to put down on a report card, but it says nothing about what a child has truly learned that year.  If they score a 65% on a cumulative math final is that saying they know 65% of the curriculum for the year?  Aren’t we supposed to make sure they know 100% of the curriculum for the year?

And is your test crafted so well that you can honestly say your final assessed them on every single outcome in the curriculum in a fair and equitable way?

If your answer to this last question is yes then you should really speak to a publisher because you’re about to make millions having crafted the “perfect test”.  And if your answer is no…then let me ask you what I’ve been asking every teacher of late…

Then why do you do it?

And for goodness sake….if you say it’s because you “have to” or because someone else “wants you to”…please stand up for yourself and just SAY NO TO FINALS.  Your students will thank you for it and you’ll be an agent of change.  You will have the support of those of us who believe with you.

It can be done.  My middle school is final exam free.  It happens because someone finally breaks the pattern.

TTWWADI – That’s the way we’ve always done it.

Ya, well…if we always did things the way we’ve always done things we’d still be hunting animals with rock spears and cooking meals over campfires while we live in caves…now wouldn’t we?


About Cherra-Lynne Olthof

I've been a middle school teacher for my entire career (which began in 2001). Like my students, I too am a life long learner. My goals include helping my students to achieve their goals, support them in their learning, and to encourage them to think "beyond the grade".
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3 Responses to Say NO to Drugs! Oh, and Final Exams!

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