An Exam Review


Lila Joffe ’21, Contributor

Exam week at the end of December was crazy and extremely stressful for many CCDS Upper School students. Whether you prepared weeks in advance or crammed the night before, a certain amount of stress seems inevitable. It is understandable that schools can and must assess students’ acquired knowledge on core subjects — but 4 or 5 exams, each lasting 2+ hours? Is CCDS possibly pushing the limits of their students, and to what end?

Compared to some other prep schools in the country, Country Day’s exams appear at one end of the spectrum. In a 9th grade Ancient World History class, we were advised to study for at least six hours; and while there is a lot of interesting material to learn in the class, Ancient World History is not even classified as an honors class. If students take such advice for every class, this could add up to well over 30 hours of studying!

I informally surveyed some friends and relatives who attend co-ed prep schools across the country to find out if they have a similarly strenuous exam schedule as ours at Country Day. It soon became clear that other schools may have a different approach, seemingly taking into consideration the unnecessary anxiety and toll that exams place on students and realizing there may be another way.

The Wheeler School in Providence, Rhode Island, for example, changed their approach to exams dramatically a few years ago. After looking into the issue, the school made a concerted effort to reduce student stress, and remove at least one exam for each of its students. As a sophomore at Wheeler, my cousin had only one traditional 2 hour written exam in math; her other classes culminated in a project in history, a science lab, and an oral presentation for her language class.

The Hawken School in Cleveland, Ohio has also taken an alternative approach to the exam process, as well as a distinctly unique schedule for classes. As a result, the curriculum seems less uniform, less stressful, and possibly even more engaging for students. For 9th graders, History and English classes are combined into one course called Humanities. Instead of having exams in each subject, 9th graders are required to take a three-week humanities or physics intensive course leading into their Winter Break.  Rather than the stress of a final exam, my friend in the Humanities intensive at Hawken created a podcast as his final project.  His other classes this year culminated in a group project, with only one written exam in math.

It is no secret and beyond dispute that exams can cause serious stress for high school students. According to a 2015 article in The Atlantic Magazine, a recent study comprised of high school students found that up to one-half of high school students who attend prep schools are chronically stressed. In addition to possibly inducing health-related issues, getting overly stressed in high school may cause students to later “burn out” in college, take longer to graduate, even drop out. Stress is expected in an intense prep school environment like Country Day, but not to the point when it causes a strain on the students’ mental and physical health. At the end of the day, what is most important is not how we are tested, but what we are learning. It is both interesting and relevant that some progressive schools are starting to recognize the negative impact a rigorous exam schedule may have on its students, and are taking steps to explore effective learning alternatives to traditional, written exams.