The system of conducting ninth grade finals is an unfamiliar structure that increases anxiety about end-of-the-year assessments. However, it is necessary to fairly administer exams and prepare students for the future.
Ninth graders at Harvard-Westlake (HW) take their finals for the five core classes (world languages, math, history, English and science) during the last two weeks of school. Each final spans two hours, with a 30 minute break for days with multiple finals. Three hundred desks and partitions are crammed into the gym of the Marshall Center each year, so all ninth grade students can take the exams at the same time.
I was terrified to take my language final with ninth graders as an eighth grader last year. The seemingly immense number of students taking tests in the same area and the greater length of the period increased my already-high level of anxiety. I was nervously fidgeting and trembling up to the minute before the final. As I sat down and started working through the problems, however, I realized that it was just another test, and I started to relax. The strict system creates unnecessary stress, but it works to create a more effective and efficient finals experience for students as well as teachers.
Holding exams in the gym helps teachers quickly administer and grade tests.
“It’s a matter of logistics. It’s a little bit easier to have everyone in the same place taking exams,” HW ninth grade dean Karen Fukushima said.
Giving and correcting several classes’ tests is a challenge for teachers, and this method guarantees that teachers can enjoy the start to their summer break, instead of spending it grading finals. In a survey sent out to ninth grade teachers in the five core classes, 43 percent of respondents strongly agreed that holding finals in the gym makes the administering and grading process more efficient, and 50 percent of respondents agreed with the statement.
The ninth grade finals arrangement also gives all students an equal opportunity to take the test. Large disparities exist between students for assessments given throughout the year. Students in later periods of the day have more time to study as do students who postpone exams for extended periods of time. Also, variations in test-giving style between teachers give students in some classes an advantage over others. The current finals system works to make the exams as standardized as possible and attempts to eradicate these unfair differences that can affect scores.
The most significant way that assessment regulations level the playing field for students is by preventing cheating. For all other tests, students can learn details from students that have taken it earlier. Obtaining information about a test is strictly against the Honor Code, but honor often isn’t enough to prevent students from trying to get information. Holding finals in the gym guarantees that all students must take finals at the same time, which eliminates the possibility of cheating.
In the questionnaire, 36 percent of teacher respondents strongly believed that holding the ninth grade finals in the gym helped create a more fair testing environment. Additionally, 43 percent of respondents agreed that the system reduced unfair advantages that some students might have.
The initial apprehensions about the rigorous system are experiences that help students grow and prepare for future endeavors. “There are both midterms and final exams at the Upper School. The tests are in a big setting like that. It’s meant to prepare you for Upper School Exams. AP exams in May are the same way: They’ll be administered in a big gym,” Fukushima said.
Compared to standardized tests that I have taken in the past, the ninth grade-style final was a little more comfortable, yet still challenging. Taking the test with students and teachers that I had known for a couple of years helped alleviate some of the unfamiliarity of the finals. Facing these difficulties in a safe, lower-pressure environment is an effective way to acclimate to the rigor of the Upper School and college. In the survey, 57 percent of replying teachers strongly agreed that the main goal in the more formal organization of the exams is to prepare students for future finals and standardized exams.
The stress surrounding the unfamiliarity of the ninth grade finals system is an unnecessary worry that shouldn’t detract from the studying process.