Students feel that they should be commended for attending their online classes each day. They profess that they are too stressed to think about finals. Others bring up the fact that there are many family members present that make it difficult to concentrate, let alone study. New York State has cancelled June and August Regents exams. Parents are weighing in. What should we as an administration do?
For some, quarantine is a considerable upheaval. For others, it is a minor irritant. We cannot assume that there is a one-size-fits-all solution. However, this situation is unprecedented. We, therefore, need to go back to the drawing board.
As an administration, we should focus on three points of reflection:
Material is covered and knowledge is obtained during the course of an academic year. Teachers must ascertain the degree their lessons have been learned and absorbed by the students. Administrators must determine whether teachers are fulfilling their instructional responsibilities for their respective syllabi. Parents have a right to know what their children have achieved in the classroom in a concrete manner. Finals are a relatively simple and effective way of determining and demonstrating all of the above. They have rubrics and accountable measures. They allow for set standards that may be applied across each class or classes.
There is another underlying perspective regarding finals that is often overlooked. Finals should not be solely about testing for knowledge acquisition. Rather, finals are a way to augment the lessons learned throughout the year. Finals are a part of the learning process. As one of our students acknowledged, “If there weren’t finals, I would stop taking notes right now.” Finals provide motivation during the course to stay the course. Being responsible for material helps a student focus during class – taking notes and clarifying information and gives the impetus to study the material after class in advance of the exam. Each individual lesson can now be viewed as part of the entire unit. The studying for and the taking of finals reinforce lessons and enhance overall perspective. It is also a way for the students to see the fruits of their labor. Lastly, finals help keep teachers on track. “We need to finish ‘x’ material before finals.”
If students and teachers are to appreciate finals as part of the learning process, they would not regard learning and tests as necessary evils. Rather, they would appropriately regard them as prestigious and precious endeavors to add to their knowledge and understanding. We would be developing lifelong learners who would want to test themselves as part of the learning process and not despise the process and ignore its benefits.
While finals present such benefits, another element must be taken into account – stress and mental fatigue. As a principal in a girls’ high school for the past eleven years, I have witnessed a tremendous amount of increased anxiety, in general, and more specifically around exam time. Many girls have an unhealthy, disproportionate perspective regarding their grades. They view themselves as failures if they do not do as well as they had hoped. They think teachers and administrators will look down at them. Fear of the dreaded seminary rejection and even the impact on their future marriage and job prospects plague their thoughts. What benefit, then, is there to cause the girls this increase in pressure?
This problem surfaces during final exams but is indicative of a systemic issue. Our students need to have stress-reducing and stress-eliminating tools in their Emotional Toolbox. Helping students learn how to self-soothe is an ongoing process. Schools that incorporate mental health development in their curriculums and outlook are teaching their students how to handle life. Feelings of anxiety (non-clinical) or situations, medical impairments, and life event that occur should be utilized as teaching moments for how to handle stress. Finals should be no different.
It is prudent to utilize options that do not undermine the integrity of the exam and offer an equitable approach that others – students, parents and teachers – can see as “fair.” Richard Lavoie, M.A., M.Ed., eloquently states in How Difficult Can This Be? The F.A.T. City Workshop (1989), “Fairness doesn’t mean everyone gets the same, it means everyone gets what he or she needs.” And, “Would we offer CPR to all bystanders if one person is having a heart attack?”
In general, there are two types of missed finals – excused and unexcused. Since we’re discussing a time when students are in difficult situations, learning at home, let’s focus for now on missed finals that are excused.
If a student has a health condition or a pressing matter that cannot be rescheduled, we may require a make-up, modified, or alternative examination, or we may choose to excuse the student. If we choose to excuse the student, careful consideration must be made prior to granting full or partial course credit. Other students will question why they need to suffer through finals when their friend is exempt. They have a legitimate question.
The answer is predicated upon the understanding that there is an optimal way of reaching the intended course objective and a subpar acceptable alternative. Those who are healthy are expected to fulfil their requirements in its optimum fashion. Course credit is not free. Even in the exceptional, excused cases, when a student misses considerable instruction and can therefore not demonstrate sufficient minimal aptitude, course credit should not be offered.
When school shifted to online learning at home, we understood that oftentimes the environment will be less than ideal for student learning. However, once the determination had been rendered that school continue regardless, learning had to proceed. Modification for course requirements were needed to be made for missed time and material, and for the understanding of individual faculty and students’ situations and needs. However, the fundamentals of school as a place of teaching and instruction must continue. As demonstrated, exams are part of the learning process. As long as we are learning, exams still have their place in the curriculum. Course credit will only be earned if the revised requirements are met.
Our school testing policy was clearly shared with the faculty, parents, and students from the beginning of online learning. However, the girls and some parents argued for clemency. They felt that the criteria for exam exemption had been met due to the current degree of stress and mental fatigue.
As is our philosophy, we needed to demonstrate that we care for and take the students’ and parents’ perspectives into account. We listened. We asked ourselves – does this situation warrant a change? If yes, what should this change look like?
We concluded that the students had a point. Life as a whole had been upended and many were struggling to maintain their equilibrium. We had already cut back on course loads and expectations for course credit. We were cognizant that some are prone to easily giving up and would only offer a token attempt at studying for finals. We appreciated that for the vast majority life was stressful, but not unmanageable.
We, therefore, offered teachers the following option: They could present a traditional final, or they could have students work on a suitable alternative project that would demonstrate appropriate knowledge acquisition. If they were to choose the traditional final, an equivalency chart would be employed to more accurately reflect what student grades would be under ideal conditions. After conveying this clarification to the teachers and students, we once again discussed with the students why we have finals and how they support their learning. We also left the door open for them to individually present their cases to the administration to see if their situation warrants their being excused.
Finals are part of the learning process. In spite of facing an unprecedented situation, upon reflection we ascertained that finals are still productive and necessary, albeit with modifications that address any added stress and mental fatigue.
We were able to come to this determination by revisiting why we have finals, exploring our policies and procedures to see if they already included an appropriate contingency for missing exams, and analyzing if the current situation warranted any changes in policy. Once these questions were addressed, we were able to seek and integrate feedback. And even when proceeding with implementation, it was prudent that we act with care, understanding and flexibility; and clearly convey this to all stakeholders. Besides for reinforcing our perspective of finals, if G-d forbid, we ever face a similar challenge, we have a model in place to follow.
Rabbi Eliezer Y. Lehrer, M.Ed., serves as Headmaster of Ora Academy, an all-girls high school located in Rochester, New York, and is the creator and presenter of The Luzzatto ApproachTM. Rabbi Lehrer may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.