Midterms prepare students for college despite the perception that they cause undue stress

Photo credit: Lauren Ahern

There seems to be a collective groan whenever Hackley’s February exams are mentioned. It is unsurprising that students don’t like spending many hours hunched over desks studying for lengthy tests on months of material. Exams can be unnecessarily stressful, take up time that could be spent learning new concepts, and can inaccurately reflect a student’s understanding. So the question remains: why even have exams? The answer lies in the myriad of benefits exams offer which make them a necessary part of the Hackley curriculum.

Andy King, Director of the Upper School, explained that part of the reason Hackley has exams is the valuable skills developed and tested through the exam-taking process.

“One of the skills that is assessed by exams is the ability to command larger amounts of information and applications. Exams shouldn’t be drilling for information but practicing the skills you have learned before. In exams there is an element of trying to synthesize information and connect multiple units to build upon understandings,” said King.

One benefit exams offer is the preparation they provide for future exams. Exams are especially useful in preparing for college entrance exams and are extremely beneficial in preparing students for AP exams. Further, many college and graduate school courses implement comprehensive midterm and final exams, and for some classes, the exam is all or the majority of the final grade.

While what Hackley does should not be entirely dictated by higher learning, Hackley is a college preparatory school and it would not be adequately preparing students for college if they gave them no experience dealing with a high-stress test covering a wide range of material.

Some students feel that exams seem to only hurt their overall grades, not help them. However, in the majority of instances, exams don’t have a meaningful impact on people’s year-end grades, and exams do offer a chance for students to raise their grades.

Exams having a predominantly negative effect is actually slightly problematic for high achieving students, who have mostly A’s and A-’s. Since exams account for 19% of the year-end grade, students’ exam grades need to be two-thirds of a letter grade different than their trimester average in order to have an impact on their year-end grade. While this can be frustrating for students, the only solution would be to make the exams worth the same as a trimester, which would make exams needlessly stressful.

In fact, many people think exams already give too much weight to a single test. The grade on one test is inherently more variable than the average of an entire trimester worth of assessments. Students believe it’s unfair that one bad exam can “undo” months of hard work.

Senior Connor Thomson said, “Something seems wrong with the fact that you can work hard to get three A’s on the trimesters, but one B on the exam makes your year-end grade an A-.” If the weight of exams was lowered to only 16% of the year-end grade this problem would be avoided, and whether exams should be weighted as only 16% of the year-end grade is a discussion that has yet to be had.

But while lowering the weight of exams could relieve stress, it comes at the risk of trivializing them. Preparing for exams is a lot of work, and exams need to be weighted enough to justify that time investment. If exams were worth only 16%, their impact on the year-end would be substantially diminished. It would disincentivize working hard and spending the necessary time studying. These are the same study skills that students will need when they head off to college and beyond.

Hackley’s exams do not completely prepare students for college exams; however, since Hackley exams are inherently less stressful. Mr. King observed at a recent alumni panel, former Hackley students explained how nothing could have prepared them adequately for exams, because a college exam can cover anything in the assigned work, even if it was not emphasized in class.

Hackley teachers do a great job focusing their exams on the material central to the class in an effort to make them an accurate representation of a students ability, and as stress-free as possible. Hackley only has exams once a year (compared to many schools who have two) and gives students sufficient time and material to help prepare themselves. Studying for exams is not fun. No one denies that. And while the benefits of exams don’t make the hours spent studying any better, at least the struggle isn’t needless.