LRHSD pleased with decision to eliminate final exams

After removing finals from the curriculum two years ago, Lenape Regional High School District has set a new standard.

The Lenape Regional High School District got rid of final exams after the conclusion of the 2014–2015 school year. Almost two years later, it does not regret doing so.

“Embarking on a new assessment system takes great vision and leadership,” Superintendent Carol Birnbohm said. “Our director of curriculum, Heather Xenakis, along with our team of supervisors, provided the stewardship needed to accomplish this for our students.”

The superintendent also credits the district’s successful transition from final exams to progress assessments to the deliberate and thoughtful process followed by all involved and that was guided by the district’s long range plan. Before the district could implement a new assessment system, teacher committees received training over several years in a new curriculum writing method called Understanding by Design. The district then wrote district-wide curricula for each course using the principles developed from this in-house training.

“We felt that Understanding by Design takes a shift from [acquiring] pure knowledge to focusing on an understanding of content, teaching and assessing for the transfer of learning,” Xenakis said.

Xenakis said Understanding by Design is not about memorizing facts and dates — information often tested for on final exams — but instead places an emphasis on assignments that require evaluation skills to complete. By focusing on understanding and transfer of learning, the district feels it is best preparing students for their futures.

“We have a seven-year cycle with curriculum writing, and what we found was that by updating our curriculum, assessments weren’t necessarily being updated at the same time,” Xenakis said. “Finals weren’t in line, per say, with the philosophy of understanding. We want students to learn about the big picture, not the minute details.”

Additionally, after a committee made up of teachers, administrators and other representatives began researching college preparedness, they noticed more colleges and universities both locally and nationwide grade students upon papers, oral presentations or semester-long projects.

Aligning its curriculum with this model, Xenakis said by eliminating five straight days of exams twice a year, teachers have gained increased instructional time.

“This is definitely our new standard. We will continue to include more progress assessments for more classes,” Xenakis said. “[Understanding by Design] also allows teachers to be reflective in progress assessments, to make any changes and to have a greater collaboration district-wide. We’re really happy with [our decision to do away with finals.]”

The district, according to Xenakis, also believes the distribution of final exams within its four schools was flawed because it saw students “began making a game out of the system.” Knowing they didn’t have time to study for all eight of their exams, they would calculate their averages to determine which test they needed to do best on, and at what percent.

Although this series of week-long tests no longer exists, that does not mean tests have been completely removed from the curriculum. Students take the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers tests three days per school year and are now experiencing a phasing in of progress assessments that will focus on district-wide, long-term learning goals per academic department. These assessments have already begun application in core courses, and will be branching out from there.

“[Students] in ninth, 10th and 11th grade do still take some standardized tests like the PSAT. Many students also choose to take the SAT, ACT or AP tests,” Justin Smith, the district’s assessment, accountability and planning coordinator, said. “These large multiple choice tests still give them something close to a final exam.”