Editorial: The overvaluing of tests and benefits of not

The trend of testing "does not reflect the work cycle of the real world".

Editorial:  Cap the value of exams

The Brown Daily Herald


In their first jobs and internships, students realize that the real world operates on a vastly different schedule than college. Work is done at the same time every day, and one cannot simply pull an all-nighter and then sleep through the next day’s lectures. Success is decided not by one all-encompassing test but rather by high-quality output each day, for years. Many Brown students would describe their work schedule over a 13-week semester as 10 weeks of manageable demand and three weeks of stressful all-nighters in the Sciences Library basement. But this trend does not reflect the work cycle of the real world. Certainly there are points of high stress for which students should be prepared, but in few careers will bosses base 50 percent of their quarterly review on a two-hour examination.

The skewed grading system and uneven workload can be seen across most departments but is more apparent in science courses, as final exams in the humanities are less common and count for less when assigned. Results in a typical Brown science course might be broken down as follows: 15 percent based on problem sets, 20 percent for labs, 20 percent for a midterm and 45 percent for a final exam. This distribution places little value on weekly work and far more focus on two high-stakes tests.

Courses should be designed to encourage students to develop more consistent work habits and minimize the importance of isolated weeks. As Anton Chekhov put it, “any idiot can face a crisis — it’s day-to-day living that wears you out.” Chekhov may have never taken an organic chemistry final, but he understood the importance of stamina in most careers, especially writing.

With problem sets, regardless of aptitude, one holds the opportunity to put in the hours and find the right answers, even if it means spending twice as many hours as a more gifted student. This type of assignment teaches students that regardless of their natural ability, they can succeed through hard work.

Within the current system, students give very little attention to problem sets. Many courses even drop the lowest set, further instilling the lesson that weekly work is not critical. Grade distribution on sets (or class participation for courses with reading) is typically narrow, with most marks concentrated toward the higher end. As a result, exams, with their wider range of grades — often as much as 80 points — play an even larger role on report cards.

The way these courses are graded, students may work hard throughout the semester but still not get an A — or even fail — because they struggled to retain all the information or froze under the pressure of a two-hour exam. Outside variables, such as spacing of exams, also put some students at a disadvantage.

Final exams test important skills, including synthesizing material from throughout the semester and working through challenging problems in a limited amount of time, but in most careers, those skills are far less important than the willingness to work hard the other 10 weeks. To appropriately reflect the values of the real world, the University should set a cap on the value of final exams and a target grade distribution.

Bringing down the value of final exams would reduce unnecessary stress during finals and force course instructors to put more weight on weekly work or assign multiple short tests. Hard-working students should never be in a position where one assignment could take them from an A to an NC.

Concentrating the grade distribution would also force instructors to make exams easier (or alternatively, incredibly difficult). If they want the same range of final grades, weekly work would need to be more difficult.

A biology course would still be able to assign an all-encompassing test to make sure students understood the core concepts of the semester. But final grades should undoubtedly reflect the student’s work throughout the semester, not just the last two hours.

Editorials are written by The Herald’s editorial page board: its editors, Alexander Kaplan ’15 and James Rattner ’15, and its members, Natasha Bluth ’15, Manuel Contreras ’16, Baxter DiFabrizio ’15, Manuel Monti-Nussbaum ’15, Katherine Pollock ’16 and Himani Sood ’15. Send comments to editorials@browndailyherald.com.

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