Finals exams in the midst of a pandemic

TOWAMENCIN – It was understandable when North Penn School District decided to cancel final exams last school year due to the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Uncertainty surrounding the virus and its effect on the country left hardly any room to worry about getting students ready to take their exams, but this year it’s a little different. NPSD has decided to continue on with final exams despite the virtual environment the majority of students find themselves learning in. 

Questions about whether students will be fully prepared for these exams have been raised since the beginning of the school year. While North Penn has created a more rigorous online learning system compared to the one put in place during the latter half of last year, teaching online has inevitably prevented teachers from moving as fast as they normally would in the classroom.

Although the struggling of students has been evident nearly all year long, their respective teachers have felt a similar weight. From the 4.0 level to the AP level, teachers have been forced to cut and take out sections of the curriculum in order to avoid having students fall too far behind.

Mrs. Michelle Mclarnon, a member of the Math Department at North Penn, teaches Algebra 2 at the 5.0 level. As many can imagine, trying to teach any form of math virtually is not something that would come very easily. It’s a subject that has always required visual aid and in-person instruction. 

“It’s just very awkward I think for both the student and the teacher and there’s a lot of misunderstandings back and forth. So with math, and probably science as well, I think it’s a lot easier having the kids in-person,” Mclarnon said. “It’s certainly a lot easier to be in-person and to have that extra help and that extra boost than trying to do it online.”

Tackling the start of this year presented itself as a daunting task for Mclarnon, but she has frequently stated how close the Math Department has gotten over the years and finds that there is always someone for her to fall back on when virtual teaching gets frustrating. 

“When one person struggles with something, you can literally ask anybody and not feel any judgment, it’s a great environment to work in,” Mclarnon said. 

But despite having a solid support system behind her, Mclarnon still finds that virtual teaching has prohibited her students from reaching their full potential. 

“It’s a natural teenage thing to push the limits. So when you are sitting at home and you don’t have somebody on you like ‘Hey, what are you working on now’ it’s really easy to put Grey’s Anatomy on in the background and just watch it,” Mclarnon laughed. “I just think it’s a little bit easier to get away with not doing work in the virtual atmosphere.”

It’s a given to say that students have become more relaxed now that they learn from home for the majority of their time, but even during a normal year, there is always the added stress of taking a final exam. The percentage weight final exams hold is often the biggest stress factor for students and this year especially, that anxious feeling has been multiplied given the fact that the curriculum has been cut and lessons have been sped up. 

“I’m not a really big fan of final exams because I feel that sometimes students that do really well throughout the year come to the end of a year and they’re tired. I don’t think final exams ever really demonstrate what a child really fully knows. I think it’s more important to count what they’ve done throughout the entire year instead of just one snapshot,” Mclarnon said. 

“This year specifically because of the different learning environments and how crazy the year has been schedule wise, I think it just puts a lot more pressure on students. I guess I just don’t see the complete advantage to doing the final,” Mclarnon said. “I don’t see the advantage to the student to complete the final exam.”

Regardless of the pandemic or not, there is always that “fine line,” as Mclarnon calls it, when it comes to taking final exams, specifically whether a student’s grade is hurt or helped by them.

“It’ll help some kids pass for the year and it might hurt some kids,” Mclarnon said. 

“I am happy to hear that the district is bringing the final exam grades down to a 10% impact on a child’s grade as opposed to a 16%. It does make me happy that they are minimizing that percentage and I think that will make the kids feel a little bit better.” Mclarnon added. 

And for students who are currently taking classes at the AP level, their exams are handled a little differently. 

Mrs. Sarah Levandowski, an English teacher at North Penn, has been teaching three 11th grade AP Language and Composition classes as well as 11th grade 5.0 level English classes this past school year. Much like Mclarnon, Levandowski has felt the burden of trying to prepare both her 5.0 and AP students for their exams given the difficult teaching environment. 

“My goal has been to make it as normal as possible. Some things take a little longer than they would traditionally take so I found whether it’s 5.0 or AP, certain things just take more time than they would have previously,” Levandowski said. 

She has found that she’s had to change the way she normally teaches her classes, especially in AP Language and Composition which is a course that consists mainly of collaborative and discussion-based work.

“A lot of the time, especially in AP, it’s very discussion-based and we do that sometimes in class but it’s a lot harder to do that in this format. If everyone is in school I can just pop around and hear what people are talking about and see if they are on track but it becomes very difficult because I obviously can’t be in four breakout rooms at once,” Levandowski said. “It’s been a lot of modifying as we go, I think that’s the best way to put it.”

Unlike the 5.0 and 6.0 levels, AP students were still expected to take the AP exams at the end of last year because the exams are administered by the CollegeBoard. Levandowski remembers the frustration felt among her students about the modified and shortened online exam last spring. 

“A lot of my students were pretty frustrated with the exam because at that point in the year by March or early April we’ve covered everything that’s going to be on the test. So they learned the full scope of the test and they were only being tested on one part of it,” Levandowski said. “Many of them were frustrated because they had a lot of internet problems with the software or method that the College Board used.”

Internet and connection issues have been one of the biggest hindrances of online learning and testing for students. The CollegeBoard encountered many issues during AP testing last year causing a number of students all over the country to retake their exams at a later date. 

“I had a number of students that had to retake it because their essay just never submitted or they got locked out of it for some reason so that wasn’t great,” Levandowski said. 

This time around though, CollegeBoard plans to administer the full AP exam and is currently offering an online version of the test as well as an in-person version. 

“CollegeBoard is giving the full test so kids have a really good chance of scoring well in multiple areas and not letting just one piece of the test determine their entire score. It looks like the CollegeBoard has learned a lot from the spring experience of last year to then fix it for this year,” Levandowski said. 

When it comes to the way that class has been run this year, Levandowski feels that having a skill-based test would benefit students more than if they had to take a traditional test that evaluates students based on the content they studied throughout the school year.  

“Obviously a test that covers skill-based things is helpful in that no matter what you read, you’ve learned the skills that we’ve been trying to teach you. Typically in AP, we read Huckleberry Finn. Huckleberry Finn is on the final exam. We did not read Huckleberry Finn this year to give us more time with the Scarlet Letter so therefore I would have to remove those Huckleberry Finn sections of the final exam,” Levandowski explained. 

“There’s nothing officially official yet with any of it so it’s hard to say exactly what is going to happen with final exams but I think we are all just working together to figure out how to best assess students given this year,” Levandowski said. 

Working together to solve internet problems and modify classes in order to set students up for success is something that teachers have been especially cooperative with during this strenuous year. They have worked hard to prepare their students to the best of their abilities and even though students will still have to take exams in the coming month, it’s important to stay proud of the hard work and added flexibility that was thrown everyone’s way this year.