Our school gives collegiate-style final exams. At the end of June, when regular classes are done for the year, we schedule students for 90 minute exam blocks in each of the major academic subjects. All students, even the 9th graders, come in just for exams and otherwise study or sleep or wander where they will.

That’s our official arrangement, anyway. On account of state-wide testing, Physics, our 9th Science requirement, gives an in-class final at the end of May. The Physics final has become a formative assessment to get students prepared for MCAS, the state exam. World Language has long gone its own way, with a multipart final that includes speaking and listening exercises as well as reading and writing prompts. Since the exam takes longer than 90 minutes to administer, they also test earlier.

This year Math defected from the collegiate final system, too. The Math faculty decided they wanted to end the year with a project unit, something applied, engaging, and collaborative. It made no sense to haul kids back after that for a traditional exam, so they decided to administer their last exam in classes in early June, before starting project work.

That leaves, for 9th graders, at least, just Social Studies and English participating in the old, end-of-year system. And that, in turn, has forced us all to think again about why we give final exams in the first place. Maybe the practice is obsolete. Maybe we should just ditch the whole thing and end every course with a project.

Articulating Key Course Content

I’m not yet persuaded. Here’s why: a good final exam (and midterm, too) compels teachers to boil down what they expect students to know and think at the end of the year. For those of us teaching core history courses, it forces us to prepare to forget.

I taught some US History to my students this year, though less than I’d hoped. They learned some small portion of what I aspired to teach them. Much of that they’ve already forgotten. As I prepared myself to prepare them for our final exam, I did something predictable and reassuring for all of us: I made a storyboard.

To be honest, my first time through the US curriculum, I strung stories together until I got to the end. The units made sense — each one had a storyboard and 4QM-style unit questions — but my course really didn’t. At least, it didn’t tell a story I could articulate clearly. And so I couldn’t, in the end, ask my students to tell a version of that story back. My first time through, my final looked a lot like a jumbo unit test.  

I’ve got a better sense of the story I want to tell about US History now. The result is that I’m better able to sum up what I want students to take away from the course once it’s over. What I want is for my students to turn a complicated set of stories into a simpler and more memorable one.

My course storyboard — the ones my students will use as a template to help them study for the final exam — tells the story of Americans arguing over time about the answers to two big sets of questions:

  • What should government do for people, and what should people (and groups) do for themselves?
  • Who is included in “the people”? Who does the American government represent? What does it actually mean to be an American?

There are lots more things my US History course could have been about. These aren’t the only questions that matter to or illuminate US History. And there are lots of different ways to tell a story focused on just these questions. Like all teachers, I’ve had to accommodate limitations, my own and those of the time I’ve been allotted with my students. And so I’ve made choices about how to make my course coherent, about something worth trying to remember.

Telling A U.S. History Story

The six boxes in my final exam storyboard represent my choices. Each box, from “Founding” through “Republican Realignment,” represents a chunk of the American story. Each can be told as a story about how public debate over government and membership changed over time. Using the prompts I’ve given them — the titles and contents of the boxes — my students will prepare themselves to tell those stories on the final exam.

For example, they’ll tell a brief story about Democratic realignment as a result of the New Deal, and the way FDR’s administration changed debate about the role of government. They’ll do that again for Reagan and the Republican realignment of the 1980s. Likewise, they’ll tell stories about immigration politics one hundred years ago and today, and about the Civil Rights movement in between — stories about inclusion and equality, the terms of membership in the American polity. I’ll ask them, finally, to offer hypotheses about why, right now, American politics is more about membership than about the proper role of government.

Preparing for and giving our final exam each year has helped to prod me into something approaching narrative coherence about my curriculum. Preparing for and taking that final will force my students to connect the pieces of our course to a bigger, more enduring story. If your final is just a unit test with more questions, then it’s probably not worth doing. If it helps your students to get some perspective on what they learned, and helps you to design your course better to achieve that aim, then it’s essential.