This week one of the largest school systems in the country, Montgomery County schools in Maryland, announced that next year they will eliminate final exams. The vote by the Board of Education was unanimous, so this was not a hotly contested issue by any means. The plan is to replace the two-hour semester-end exams with shorter, more periodic assessments taken throughout the year; the assessments can take the form of tests, essays, portfolios, projects, etc.
The rationale behind the decision to eliminate final exams is that students take too many tests already and the school system can’t eliminate federally mandated exams, so instead they’re taking matters into their own hands by eliminating the exams they do have control over. In a similar vein, last year Loudoun County schools in Northern Virginia removed the requirement for teachers to give midterm and final exams.
Clearly this is a whole shift in the thinking about the educational process, how it’s managed, and how its outcomes are measured.
I once observed a discussion on social media on the topic of grading homeschooled kids. One of the people in the discussion wrote that she gives her kids as much time as they need to learn the material and doesn’t issue them a grade until they’ve mastered it. Her philosophy was that her goal, as a homeschooling parent, was for her child to master the material. Whether it was on his own timetable or on one that matches a traditional school schedule, it didn’t matter - as long as mastery was the outcome.
At first I wondered about that approach and questioned its validity, but the more I reflected on it, the more I agreed with it. What exactly is the hurry to have kids master their studies in a predetermined amount of time? Because really, until kids reach college (or even for some kids, their last two years of college), is the acquisition of knowledge the terminal goal, or is their major achievement learning how to learn - how to discern key points of information, how to analyze and think critically, how to organize their thoughts, how to present a compelling point of view? These are the core skills that allow college students to actually acquire knowledge and skills in their chosen major and prepare to perform and succeed in the workforce.
Learning how to learn, learning how to think critically, learning how to evaluate and learning how to course correct are the most vital skills we can teach our children. Learning is an iterative process, not one that can always be measured by a fixed final examination and one that does not always take a linear path. Everything is progress, whether or not it’s on a schedule or a prescribed sequence or part of a predetermined scope. Every child (and adult for that matter) is on a journey and if they have not arrived at their destination, they are not necessarily lost - they just haven’t arrived yet.
When I came across this TED Talk by Carol Dweck called “The Power of Believing That You Can Improve,” it brought to mind that online conversation about homeschoolers having far fewer fixed criteria to meet their curricula. And in that, there is great liberation and a whole mental shift toward the positive. Dweck’s TED talk reinforces the idea that measuring mastery at particular benchmarks is neither necessary nor beneficial, because it negates the idea of “not yet”
Watch it yourself and feel empowered by the idea of “not yet.” What is it that you haven’t achieved, at least, “not yet?”