Exams are at risk of extinction

Skepticism towards standardized tests has become increasingly obvious in recent years, with more than 1,900 colleges and universities in the U.S. remaining test-optional for the 2023-24 application cycle. Just a few months ago, Harvard University announced that applications will remain test-optional for at least four more admissions cycles, asserting that “students who do not submit standardized test scores will not be disadvantaged in their application process.”

After hearing this, my gut tells me that one of two things might be happening. Either the admissions team's assertion can be taken with a grain of salt, or Harvard University is not the school it used to be.

At any rate, this recent shift has not come out of the blue, but rather sprung from a larger looming societal trend: The rejection of tests as an accurate reflection of students’ intelligence and learning capability — more and more are arguing that we should do without school examinations altogether.

First, parents are more concerned about the stress levels of their children — and rightly so. APA’s Stress in America 2020 Survey revealed that Gen Z is the most stressed generation yet. Although some would argue that other factors — namely the pandemic, mental health concerns, the over-consumption of media — are the cause of this stress, waves of parents are now pointing their fingers at school administrators. Having been in use since the mid-1800s, one would think that something as common as school testing is considered tried and true by all. This is not the case.

I remember clearly the first time I ever felt stressed. It was on the first of a five-day-long trip with my kindergarten class to Malcesine, a small town on Lake Garda, Italy. I was five years old, and it was too early that morning when my mom ushered me towards my classmates, who were waiting for me on the bus. I saw her from the window, getting smaller and smaller as she waved goodbye from the parking lot. After just a few minutes, I started to panic — I didn’t think I could make it without her. In her usual fashion, my teacher, Ms. Graziella, calmed me down in the way she knew best, by distracting me and making me dance. That first night without our parents was rough for all of us, and tears were shed all around. However, no parents were called; no amount of coddling was indulged in.

This, whether we liked it or not, made us tougher.

Nowadays, nothing is allowed to be stressful — even here at Duke, this became obvious from the beginning.

I chose PWILD for my experiential orientation project, a five-night camping trip that promised a week of hiking and living — as the name suggests — in the wild. As a fairly experienced camper, I was prepared for the worst. Because of this, when the cushiony concept of “challenge by choice” was introduced to me, I was taken aback. Wasn’t my consent to be challenged already implied when I chose to partake in PWILD?

Wouldn’t it be easy, if life was really like that? An opt-in culture would mean that students might “opt in” going to lectures or “opt in” to completing assignments. Clearly, reality isn’t like that at all.

However, I can’t even blame the school or the organization for protecting itself from any unsolicited lawsuits. By making it clear that they aren’t forcing students into anything, they can’t be blamed for any stress a student might be feeling. In addition, they emphasize that peer pressure does not factor into the stress-causing equation. How? By changing the wording. As students “opt in” rather than “opt out,” the default becomes to not participate.

I don’t know about you, but to me, this is all starting to feel like receiving a participation medal in fifth grade athletics events.

Just as fifth graders are taught that true athletic ability does not really matter, as all efforts are rewarded just the same, both high school and college students’ assignments are increasingly graded on completion.

Rather than being encouraging, this tactic results in declining motivation. I’m as guilty of this as anyone else. Let’s relate this idea to my Calculus II class, for a change. Whereas I complete the optional daily homeworks to the best of my ability for my own sake, I put nearly no effort into the Weekly Check-Ins, which are graded on completion.

Educators are becoming softer, but rather than benefiting their students, they might be unintentionally harming them.

Likewise, most testing now has the option of extra time and special testing environments for some students. While accommodations should be made to account for differing abilities, they should not be made to account for students’ declining motivation to study. That is, professors should not make a test easier simply because the previous class did poorly on it—they should encourage the current class to study harder. With testing being administered more fairly, the longing to abolish school examinations seems counterproductive.

However, stress can be good for us sometimes. For most of us, some of the most stressful exams we ever took were also our firsts — like most things, taking tests does get easier with practice.

Nevertheless, a majority of students agree with this trend. If given the option, I would bet most students here at Duke would opt for an exam-free semester any day. That is, whether or not they have considered if the change would benefit or harm them in the long run.

The abolition of exams would mean an increased focus on learning only from class to class. In essence, students would only have to relate what material was talked about that day to complete the next assignment, never looking back beyond one lecture or two. While this seems all very cozy, the habit of committing any material to long-term memory would eventually fade. Furthermore, any assurance that a student really knows the material would be removed, as when graded material is take-home, there is no guarantee that external resources won’t be used to complete it. Imagine being operated by a surgeon who has never had to take a test. Would you trust that he really knew all that he should?

With the declining importance of examinations, more pressure is placed on students to build up the rest of their resumes. Once, graduating with a decent GPA from a decent school alone could you pretty far in life. No longer. Now, community involvement and leadership roles are more relevant. And don’t we know it! Here at Duke, resume culture is more prevalent than ever.

As undergraduate applications are becoming more and more subjective, success can no longer be achieved by academic effort alone. Stellar writing, then, is more important than ever — two students might be part of the same school organization, play the same sport, and even be part of the same community service. However, one student’s personal essay might read more smoothly than the other. Then, the difference between being admitted and rejected shifts from being a standardized test score to proficiency in writing. Is that really better?

With all this in mind, we now trail off into the rest of this fall semester with one set of midterms down, and one to go, more grateful for these exams than ever before.

Exams are stressful. My suggestion? Deal with it — an examination-free world might be worse than you think.

Anna Garziera is a Trinity first-year. Her column typically runs on alternate Wednesdays.


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