Should High Schools Stop Giving Final Examinations?

That very question recently stopped me in the hallway of a local high school, posed by the school’s head principal, Dr. XYZ. I’ve been stopped by principals in hallways for the better part of 30 years, and before I’ve always had a quick answer or response, usually something along the lines of ‘I’m on my way to the bathroom,’ before this latest inquisition. This just wasn’t a topic I had considered.

My primary experience with final examinations was as a high school student and a high school teacher. In both cases, finals were part of the unquestioned landscape of the school situation and were proffered, most often, as a way of preparing students for the rigors of the finals in college. I remember water balloon fights were the norm after and in between finals at Medicine Lodge High School, at least until T.J. Rausch’s windshield shattered.

But those were different days. School is unlike my experience in the 90’s or 00’s when I was a high school student and then high school teacher. I’m not sure looking to the past does much but provide a reference point. The number of standardized tests have increased at such a rate that yesterday is hardly recognizable in today’s terms. For example, I took the Iowa Basic Skills tests two or three times and took the ACT twice in the 84-96 era of American education. Students today take more tests designed by someone-other-than-their-teachers in first grade than I took in 12 years of school. Read the last sentence again for emphasis.

The chief defense or reason given for final examinations in high school is that they prepare students for college, prepare them to be in a stressful testing-like situation (hey, kids, do you need more practice at being stressed-out?). Back in the days of yore, I see that preparation argument being more appropriate than it is today though perhaps still false in its motives, a little like what John Mayer alludes to in his song “No Such Thing.”

I just found out there’s no such thing as the real world/

Just a lie you got to rise above.

Versus further pontification on the merit or value of finals, I’m opening EduSanity to our readers to contribute to a discussion, one I’ll share with Dr. XYZ. Here are some questions to get us started—feel free to use the comment box or email me your contributions (

Should high schools stop giving final examinations?

To what extent do colleges still give finals and what do those finals look like?

What finals do you remember in a positive light or struggle to try to forget?

Do students today still need more experiences in high pressure testing situations?

What would be lost if high schools stopped giving final examinations?



  1. I have always favored a format of cumulative/progressive testing where all material is covered in each test. When combined with a presentation style that begins with a series of basic concepts with each being expanded upon through the term, students are heavily schooled in the basic material throughout the semester/quarter etc. and these elements are much more likely to enter permanent conceptualization as opposed to temporary memory.

  2. One “final” that I recall in a positive light was not in school at all. It was the 3 hour Eagle Scout review board that I experienced in the 11th grade. I had been a part of Scouts since I was very young, and anyone who has experience with scouting knows that you practice new skills alongside those that you’ve learned years ago in a collaborative learning environment. I probably studied all of 1 hour for the review board – because I was nervous – but there was no need to be. I had a conversation with a mix of slightly older scouts and adult leaders about things that I had literally been doing all of my life. The especially fun parts were when they asked me to apply separate bits of knowledge from different parts of scouting to solve a case study/problem. Although new to me, this made a lot of sense, because I had been doing it at every event, campout, and meeting since I started scouting. Needless to say, I aced that “final exam” and still use many of those skills to this day.

    One final that recall in a very negative light was the history final (sorry Jason!) at the end of my junior year. I was still concerned about getting a good grade to get into the college of my choice, and the final was both comprehensive and detailed. It could literally have questions on everything from the Roman empire to present day in western civilization, and the questions often covered very small details. I found out later from my doctor that I probably got my ulcer from worrying and studying for it. I aced that exam too, but I recall very little of what I learned – if I learned anything.

  3. Our school began giving semester finals this year. Our graduates thought it was a good idea. Yes, our students are tested in a wide variety of ways. (ACTAAP, NWEA, Mock Tests, field test for PARCC, AP, and ACT Explore and Plan). Semester tests provide data on the course they are actually taking, and this is what my 2 college sons are experiencing.