Furthermore, high-stakes testing doesn’t disappear after high school. Many college courses still rely on cumulative exams, and many professions give cumulative exams as a requirement of licensure.
So why not give such exams? For me, it’s about what I’m trying to assess. If a student has mastered course skills and content but struggles with organization, time management, or focus, is she going to be able to show me what she really understands? Or will her performance on my exam be hindered by her challenges in these areas? And if so, am I really seeing what she has learned in my class? I am not–unless my class has spent as much time teaching organization, time management, and focus strategies as it has on teaching course content, and that’s the subject of a whole other blog post!
To really get at student learning I can give a non-cumulative exam, one that focuses solely on synthesis and application, providing cumulative frameworks and outlines during the test itself. I can assign a project, paper, or performance that requires the use of the content and skills students have been learning and allows checkpoints where I can help students learn and practice effective executive functioning skills along the way. I can ask each student to write an exam, using all the resources at her disposal, and learn more about what she understands about my course material than her performance on an exam I’ve written would tell me, particularly if I ask her to explain her decisions orally or in writing after she’s created it.
Cumulative exams aren’t all bad. I just believe we can do better.
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Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)