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Danbury High Drops Finals for More Class Time [UPDATED]

Danbury is ditching the common practice of administering long exams at the end of every semester in exchange for more class time and better assessments of students.

Patch File Photo
Patch File Photo
[This post has been updated to include comments from dissenting Board of Education member Michael Ferguson.]

Danbury High School students will be spending more time learning and less time preparing for and sitting through grueling final exams next year. The district is doing away with traditional midterms and finals in favor of more instructional time in the classroom.

While the students might be overjoyed, some say they’re missing out on valuable experience they’ll wish they had.

Teaching How to Test

A year and a half ago (about halfway through his current tenure), high school principal Gary Bocaccio was thinking about ways to improve the educational experience for his students and faculty and realized one of the major roadblocks to education was not enough instructional time in the classroom.

“I began to question the validity of all this testing,” he said. “Is it all worthwhile?”

Bocaccio organized a series of committees to research the idea of ending the practice of giving midterm and final exams. After studying the issues, meeting with community groups and stakeholders at a series of discussions, the Danbury Board of Education voted 9-1 Wednesday to cease administering exams at the end of each semester.

“The most important thing for learning is instructional time with teachers, face-time,” he said.

Board of Ed member Michael Ferguson, however, believes there is value in the midterm/finals assessment model and voted against the proposal.

“It’s not so much about the academic part of a test, it’s the emotional and mental preparation,” he explained during an interview Thursday.

Having a week of tests that require students to be prepared for a semester or year’s worth of information teaches valuable skills, according to Ferguson, a 2009 Danbury High School grad and recent graduate of Western Connecticut State University (WCSU).

“It teaches time management, how to take two big tests back to back, how to manage stress,” all things students should know before they go to college, he said. “The stress is high school times 10 in college. This is not only a bad idea but truly detrimental to students.”

Danbury High School is not the first school in Connecticut to get rid of midterms or finals, though it might be the first school district to do so. (Officials with the State Department of Education were unable to confirm, as they don’t maintain data on individual school tests.)

More Teaching, Less Testing

With state-mandated testing, Advanced Placement exams, SAT prep and midterms and finals, Bocaccio saw valuable classroom time being eaten up preparing for and administering lengthy exams.

Between the 4 half-days set aside for testing at the end of each semester and 3-5 days teachers often use to prepare pupils for the upcoming exams, students are losing as much as 18 days that would otherwise be used for instruction, Bocaccio said.

That’s nearly 10 percent of the school year — and over the course of a 4-year high school education, that adds up.

Besides the lost time, Bocaccio argued that the exams don’t have a material effect on most students’ grades and have little to no educational value.

“What we found talking to teachers was that they have plenty of assessments — they didn’t need another grade,” he said, stressing that students will have quizzes and other tests throughout the year, just not “filling out bubbles on a sheet for hours.”

Using internal data on grades and testing, Bocaccio said the district found that midterms and finals had little impact on whether a student passed or failed a course.

Particularly with finals, teachers, students and parents pointed out that there was no way to learn from the assessments, either, as students just get a grade on a report card mid-summer with no opportunity to see where mistakes were made, let alone learn from them.

“We want exams that are both assessments and learning opportunities,” Bocaccio explained, rather than just a grade on a page. “We’re not just going to corral kids for three hours at the end of the year to take a bubble test.”

The principal acknowledged some concerns that students would not be prepared for college exams, though he reiterated that there will still be testing going on at the high school.

“If sitting for a two-hour exam is preparation [for college], then we’re doing plenty of that with state testing,” he said.

However, Bocaccio contends that examinations are changing at all levels. While studying the idea of canceling midterms and finals, Bocaccio spoke with students at WCSU who, coincidentally, were on their way to take end-of-semester exams.

“Most of the kids at WestConn aren’t taking sit-down finals,” he said. “They’re showing portfolios, giving oral exams or presentations.”

Ferguson, however, said he polled a number of recent college grads and current students and found them not only against the idea but also of the “overwhelming opinion that this would be a huge mistake.”

“It’s that mental preparation — to never go through that is a disservice,” he said. “They just won’t know what to expect.”

Ferguson also questioned the speed with which the Board of Education approved the new policy, asserting that most of the members heard about it for the first time during a presentation at Wednesday night’s meeting and voted on it less than two hours later.

“They needed to listen to these recent college grads and current college students, the high majority of whom were adamantly against it,” he said. “This takes a whole step backward.”

Some universities, such as Harvard, have already stopped administering finals in every course, leaving it to the professors to decide on an individual basis.

Bocaccio said he believes this is the trend and hopes it will spur teachers to rethink their testing strategies to “give kids more authentic kinds of assessments and more authentic results.”

Unfortunately for students eagerly awaiting their upcoming summer vacation, the new policy does not go into effect until next year.

What do you think?

Are midterms and finals an important experience or time that could be better used in the classroom?

NewtownMark May 16, 2014 at 05:23 PM
Just wondering when we see the article titled "Immaculate sees dramatic increase in enrollment"
Chris Morth May 16, 2014 at 10:30 PM
Excellent move by Danbury. By the end of the year, my students have already experienced enough mandatory state/national/district testing and I've certainly heaped more than enough stress on them with papers, projects and tests of my own. Final exams have always been a missed opportunity for additional instruction and learning. Hopefully Danbury will move in the direction that a lot of other districts have taken and have final, culminating projects/papers that will mirror the actual experiences they'll face in the real world.
Skyhawk May 17, 2014 at 11:34 AM
I laugh at Danbury.
Margaret Denn May 26, 2014 at 03:55 PM
I totally agree with Danbury's school board's decision to end mid-term and final testing. And, to address the lone dissenter, a recent college graduate himself, if students need practice bubbling in answers give them a short practice test to do. Save the precious class time for instruction, presentations, working on portfolios, etc. Ditch the worthless bubble in testing, including the standardized tests. What a waste of time.

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