Finals Fever!

I used to love this season a lot more. I carried wounds out of college — fleshy, red stripes — inflicted by the dozen-or-so final exams I took each year. It was refreshing, then, even thrilling in some unfortunately sadistic sense, to be the one doling out the pain.

I was finally the one being begged for small granulated clues to exam content, rather than the one wheedling the same clues from some lame bohemian TA. Their anxiety, their whimpered pleas for a study guide, repaired me and, in the same regrettable sense as before, made me stronger. At one point I tallied all the final exams I’d taken in my life and then determined a five-year teaching stint would be enough to mend.

I’m here to report a full recovery, three years ahead of schedule.

Now they’re a nuisance. My exams are worth a paltry 10%, simply because I’ve already assessed my students so much.

I know what my students know about Algebra and Geometry. In fact, if any grade out of any of my three classes rises or falls by a letter grade or more, I’m buying drinks for the entire blogosphere.

My WordPress dashboard is reporting eighty hits a day on this here blog thing. I reckon forty of those are my mom, the other forty are teachers, and maybe twenty out of those know how to leave a comment.

So here’s the question I’m pondering right now of you twenty teachers, twenty minutes before my first final: how much is your final exam worth?

If you answer 20% or anywhere above, well, congratulations, friend, you’re today’s celebrity commenter! Do stop by and let us know why you hang one fifth of a student’s final grade on a two hour fraction of the semester.

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. Michael D'Angelico

    January 23, 2007 - 12:46 pm -

    I like to keep my students guessing: if they get an A on the final exam, it’s worth 5% of their grade. 10% if they get a B. A C bumps up to 20%, a D is 30%, and – finally – an F on the final exam is worth 50% of the grade. I compensate for the discrepancy in numbers by raising or lowering the worth of their homework.

    What I like to do is test REAL hard the cream that floats to the top and essentially do away with the chaff. There are some kids who, frankly, shouldn’t be in school.

    BTW: I teach middle school history.

  2. No kidding. Heck, Steve, you’re the real celebrity. So what do you do with your two freebie hours then? Movies? Group projects? Presentations? Liars dice? And is it common knowledge among students and faculty that Mr. Lazar doesn’t do the whole final exam thing?

  3. I rarely have tests, but my final projects run from 20%-40% depending on the class and the project. In most cases, the projects are long term — students are reviewing past work, revising it meaningfully, and writing about their progress as students — what they think they’ve learned, how, and what they plan to do with that knowledge.
    I don’t have a problem with the projects having high value, as the students have to use the entire quarter’s body of work to complete them successfully.

  4. There are some kids who, frankly, shouldn’t be in school.

    Wow Michael. Would you mind getting your own blog so that we can discuss this further?

  5. Never gave a final exam in nine years in the classroom. Lots of final performance-based assessments…. come in, bring a revised version of a project you did and take me through it, both process and product.

    Now… here’s my celebrity question for you… how can you both argue that nothing a kid does in two hours should be worth more than 10% of their grade but also argue that schools and students should be judged on a state-wide exam vis-a-vis NCLB?

  6. Gotta say, I’m pretty impressed / heartened by the responses. You guys really do buck the whole final exam thing, huh? I mean, on the basis of peer pressure alone, I have to give one. I thought I was something special going for a meager 10%, but y’all are the real heroes.

    As for Chris’ celebrity bear trap, it bears mentioning I never said, “nothing a kid does in two hours should be worth more than 10% of their grade.” I think that a K-12 teacher needs to justify a 50% final exam grade, but a college professor doesn’t, nor does the state of California.

    And it just comes down to system constraints and how well these arbiters play within them. A college professor, lecturing 500 students at a shot (I went public), can’t assess each student individually across a variety of rubrics. The state, fenced in on more sides than college professors, also can’t help but play testing for high stakes.

    A high school math teacher with a full 90 days to apprise himself of his students’ abilities and improve them? I just can’t think of many good excuses for a high-stakes final exam.

  7. I think finals need to go away in high school. I’d love for school to be out for a week (semester break, let teachers get finals grades settled, etc.) and just start the next semester, no finals. I’d like the same thing at the end of the year. If a kid’s earning a C all semester long, is anyone surprised when that kid earns a C on the final? And all that time and effort put in to tell teachers what we already know?

  8. I teach in Sweden so our grade system is not the same. We don’t calculate a percentage, we try do see what skills our students have and at what level of mastery. When it comes to finals I see it as a good way to check two things. Does the student remember what he/she used to know back when it was 1st learned? Can the student combine different skills from different areas for more complex problems?

    In this way can the final decide a lot of the course grade. What use is it if the student knew how to calculate the slope of a line if he doesn’t remember how to do it a few weeks later? My student get about 4h at the final and it is one of the few occasion I have time to test many different areas at one time.


  9. No kidding. Heck, Steve, you’re the real celebrity. So what do you do with your two freebie hours then? Movies? Group projects? Presentations? Liars dice? And is it common knowledge among students and faculty that Mr. Lazar doesn’t do the whole final exam thing?

    Well – I’m actually at a school now that doesn’t have final exams scheduled – a few teachers do give them, however, our emphasis is on project based assessment so my students have one major project each Trimester that works out to 25-50% of their grade.  However, this is a project that they work on for 25-50% of the semester.  With that said, my students have to pass the New York State Regents exam in Global History to graduate from high school (which I’m currently taking a break form grading), so that has a similar (though very unfortunate) effect to a final exam. At my last school in Virginia however, I did final presentations during finals period (the last one was to write and preform an episode of The Daily Show taking place at some other point in history).  To my knowledge, I was the only teacher who did this in my department (of 22 teachers).  At that school, they really only cared how students did on the Virginia Standards of Learning test (like NY, a graduation requirement), and my kids did better than the average for the school, so I was left alone.

  10. My (small private) school’s policy is to have midterm and final exams each worth 10% of the year-end grade, with each of the four quarters being 20%. Oddly, seniors don’t take exams, and in the middle school they have a graduated scale – 6th graders have exams in History, English and and Math, 7th graders add Science to that and 8th graders have all of the above and Logic.

    I had many students (in my algebra class particularly) who did MUCH worse on their exam than they’d done the rest of the year. I like Per’s comments about the complexity of the final. I didn’t include problems like “Solve. 3x = 21” on the final, because I want my students to be able to use those skills to solve more complex problems. Some of my students could have told me that parallel lines have the same slope, and had memorized the point slope equation, but couldn’t put those two things together to write an equation of a line that’s parallel to a given line and goes through a given point.

    A final exam is often a more accurate indicator of how much a student has actually LEARNED – as in, is able to recall and apply – rather than how good they are at cramming or memorizing for the short term. I believe that it does still have a place in the high school, but I’m not sure about the middle school.

  11. I teach college, and one final I gave last semeser was worth about 25% of the grade, but I only have time to give 3 other tests in a semester, and each of those is worth more than 15%. When every assessment is carved out of precious instructional time, you don’t test as often.

  12. The final is worth 30%. I have no choice about that. It’s policy. The students also have to pass Ontario’s Provincial Literacy test in order to obtain a high school diploma. The pass for this test is 70%. Talk about pressure. It’s driving kids and teachers around the bend.

  13. One Year Later…

    I stumbled upon this post and am happy to know that I am not the only one to buck the system. I don’t even like giving tests during the year as I don’t see how doing paper and pencil examples proves you know anything…except for maybe showing you know how to do paper and pencil examples. There is rarely a chance to show what you have really learned on a test. It is impossible sum it all up in 120 minutes or less.

  14. “I think that a K-12 teacher needs to justify a 50% final exam grade, but a college professor doesn’t, nor does the state of California.”

    What’s your explanation for not expecting college professors or the state of California to justify such heavy emphasis on a summative assessment? I’m not arguing that they shouldn’t be allowed to weight grades accordingly. I just ponder why you think high school (or elementary) teachers should have to justify it?

    Now to your question. How much do I weight my final exam? First off, its not a separate category from my regular tests. That being said tests account for roughly 50% of their overall grade. The final is just another test. It is a cumulative test, but still just a test.

    Is it worth more than formative assessments? Yes. How much? About double.

    My grading breaks down to 50% test, 50% portfolio. Homework? Classwork? Participation? All part of their portfolio.

    I am intrigued by your 70/30 break down though. Tests are important. Plain and simple.

    In reference to your disdain for platitudes like NCLB forces teachers to “teach to the test,” I couldn’t agree more.

    Who are these teachers that don’t teach to their test? Why do they assess? What’s the point of giving a test, if you are not preparing your students for it, by teaching the material/skills that will be covered?

    What irks me about standardized testing is that I have little say in the creation of the standards and assessment tool. I have so far been disappointed by the validity of the CST in World History as an effective measure of what is expected to be taught.

    To be honest, we need more emphasis on testing. There I said it. Luckily I don’t belong to a teacher’s union so I won’t have to worry about being ostracized. (I teach in a charter: no union, no tenure, yay!)

    If the point of secondary schooling is to prepare students for college, then why isn’t there a bigger focus on testing and research? Because, if memory fails me, I don’t remember doing vocab worksheets in college, but I do remember research papers and those damn blue books (also very few multiple choice tests).