I share many of the misgivings expressed by The Washington Post’s editorial board on Montgomery County’s decision to switch from final exams to assessments, such as projects, in high school courses.
In my experience, exams motivate students to review what they have been taught, a key to the learning process. But I believe the Montgomery experiment is worth a try because it could lead more students to take a different set of final exams that are much better than those the school system is abandoning.
The alternatives are the
college-level exams taken at the end of Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and Advanced International Certificate of Education Cambridge courses already available in Montgomery high schools. Nothing has had as beneficial an effect on U.S. high school achievement in the past 30 years.
The AP, IB and Cambridge exams are at least three hours long, compared with two hours for finals in Montgomery County. They usually have more challenging questions and, most important, are written and graded by independent experts who do not know the students they are grading.
This is a key difference. AP and IB graders have no incentive to give test takers a break. Even in ethically run districts like Montgomery, final exams are vulnerable to political or parental pressure for higher scores or easier questions. AP teachers asked to let up can say that if they do so, their students will get bad grades on an exam they do not control.
Montgomery is already comfortable with AP, IB and Cambridge courses. In 2014, 67.4 percent of graduating seniors took at least one AP or IB exam, and 54.3 percent had at least one passing score. This is at least twice the participation and passing rates for such exams nationally.
Some Montgomery parents cringe at the idea of more such courses because their children are already taking three, four or more a year. I don’t think such students need to do any more than they are doing. But why not urge the thousands of students each year who do not take these courses and exams to give them a try? Just one AP or IB won’t hurt them. They will have more time to study for the exams because there no longer will be any regular finals to worry about.
Montgomery County officials should look at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, just across the Potomac. That school’s teachers have achieved close to 100 percent participation in AP or IB courses and exams and 70 percent passing rates on the tests despite a student population that is 33 percent low-income.
Offering such difficult courses to students who might struggle will displease commentators like Stanley Kurtz, senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Centers. In a recent Post op-ed, he argued that schools should not let students take AP if there is little likelihood of them passing the test. He cites research by William Lichten, a Yale physicist who became interested in AP late in life and concluded that putting AP in schools where no one passes the exams was a “disaster.”
I had discussed this with Lichten, a brilliant man who died at 86 last year without having much firsthand experience with low-income urban high schools that use AP. I told him that as a scientist, before reaching any conclusion, he should first observe schools like Washington-Lee, where skilled teachers find that students who fail AP or IB exams still learn much more than they would in easier courses. Lichten told me he could not comment on that possibility because it was not part of his research.
Montgomery already has great college-level programs, open to all, and can confidently go where critics like Kurtz and Lichten have not gone. With no more regular final exams to take up average students’ time, Montgomery can expand its efforts to see how much more those students can benefit from something more challenging: rigorous courses taught by the many Montgomery teachers already skilled at preparing students for college and the workplace.