A Critique of Midterms

Foxx Hart, Opinions Editor

The first version of this article was written prior to midterms, and was, shall we say, “unsympathetic” to the concept. Beginning again after midterms, my opinions remain mostly unchanged, but I think whether the school continues to give them (and under what circumstances) is ultimately a question of where B.C. High is going as an institution. These are times of upheaval and experimentation, which every healthy institution undergoes (and B.C. High, being tradition-laden, should work especially hard to embrace change). Midterms were an experiment. The results of that experiment are themselves neutral; I see midyear exams as genuinely being neither good nor bad for the mission of Boston College High School. I even see midterms as capable of furthering each of the two visions that B.C. High has for its future (i.e. a more depth-focused Ignatian model, like the one laid out in my last article, or an industrialized A.P. powerhouse). As always, context is everything.

The anti-midterm camp, as I see it, has two arguments: (1) midterms are annoying and (2) they take a week of instructional time without adequately recouping the learning value lost. The second argument is valid; midterms were supposedly reintroduced so that teachers could go over them with students, and students could grow from their mistakes. In other words, they were reintroduced to help students “learn.” I see the academic value of midterms as being more in summation than error analysis; I believe you “learn” more (and we’ll get to different ideas of learning later) by needing to recall all the information you’ve learned since September than you do by analyzing why you got #17 wrong when, unless you’re in an A.P., you’ll probably never see #17 again. This brings me to A.P.s. Midterms are useful for A.P. classes because they allow for simulation of a full(er) exam under timed circumstances, and they force you to do some work now so you’re struggling a little less in May. To me, that’s more valuable (at least in the logistical sense of reviewing for the A.P. exam) than an abstract idea of error analysis. However, I do not believe added value to be the trend. Generally, kids are more likely to either write off their errors as insignificant (i.e. they did well enough so they don’t care) or are unable to process anything except that their semester grade somehow dropped from a B+ to a C in 90 minutes.

Turning to the argument that midterms are annoying, I believe there’s something there worth not dismissing. Sure, part of it is kids complaining about a test they don’t want to take, but another part is a faction of students who are legitimately stressed and want to learn but can’t because they have this massive exam looming. True, college students have finals, and yes, it is important for students to learn to cope with that stress. But my rejoinder to the “we’re college prep and we do X because colleges do” argument is simple: we’re not a college. We don’t give our students the benefits of college life (like copious free time). Nor should we attempt to. We should allow our students to be kids. B.C. High, to echo Mr. Westfield’s sentiment at the NHS Induction Ceremony, doesn’t have enough time for fun. And fun is important – not because it makes us better students, but because it makes us better people. Fun contributes to our physical, psychological, and social health (cura personalis anyone?). We’re willing to work hard. We all came to B.C. High to work hard, but that shouldn’t come at the expense of being allowed to experience God in the state of grace that comes when you’re not going 1000 miles an hour (or thinking about going 1000 miles an hour). Being a second semester Senior has given me an appreciation of just how joyous (and productive) low-stress learning can be. It’s the first time in my life I’m learning for the sake of learning in school. There’s something tragicomic about that, but it’s not just a B.C. High problem. Education in America is broken; education at B.C. High doesn’t have to be. We go to school in Rome, under Papal decree. We have the luxury of experimentation, of changing the system when things don’t work. Let’s use it where we can.

Midterms can obviously help an industrial model of B.C. High, but what about an Ignatian one? (the Jesuits make it abundantly clear in Ratio Studiorum that they are not opposed to high stakes testing). One solution would be to make them skill-based, as was done with A.P. Lang Comp and the Sophomore Essay. Writing is an enduring skill, and being able to write is a near-universal hallmark of a good education. Have students write about what they studied. Conduct oral exams to humanize the process (a teacher may be able to prompt a student into saying what they know, whereas a piece of paper is incapable of doing so). Give students one redo in their four years here (how’s that for teaching responsibility?). Midyear exams have the potential to be useful benchmarks if we make it so that they test for the right things (i.e. skills and relevant content as opposed to an exam for exam’s sake). They don’t need to be antithetical to student mental health (adding more review days, not two when one is a mass, would be a great start). They have the potential to improve B.C. High, to make it the best at what it does. Their use becomes a case of intention, of careful reflection on what we do, why we do it, and whether midyear exams add or subtract from that equation.