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Schools' exam policy sends wrong message

My teenage sons are going to hate this column, but I have to protest.

I don't see why high school students are being exempted from semester exams.

Students with perfect attendance can skip up to four exams the first semester, and three in the second. A sliding scale reduces that number for each absence, and there are exceptions for freshmen and graduating seniors.

As my colleague Letitia Stein wrote in Sunday's paper, the current exam exemption debate revolves around the district's not allowing for excused absences for illness or family deaths. Parents want greater leniency while continuing with exam exemptions.

I want to ask a broader question: Why are we using an incentive that doesn't properly prepare students for college?

You remember college, don't you? The academic institution where you never get rewarded for good attendance?

Our high schools are supposed to be in the business of preparing kids for that next level. In fact, this year the district adopted a new curriculum designed to put more students in Advance Placement classes because those classes better simulate the demands of college.

So shouldn't the district follow through with the high-stakes testing that is a way of life on campus?

I realize that semester exams can be terribly demanding. That's because in some core courses, individual teachers design regular tests but the district issues a standardized, countywide final for all high schools. I can hear my sons already arguing that it's not fair.

But you know what? Life isn't fair, and the sooner our students come to that realization the better off they're going to be.

Anthony Satchel, one of the district's top administrators, told the Times that students expecting exam exemptions in college "will have an awakening." I say let's wake them up now.

The message we need to deliver is simple: Tough high school demands today will prevent college from kicking your butt tomorrow. So many bright-eyed students get sent home after a semester or two not because they didn't go to class but because the daunting task of passing two tests proved too great.

Yes kids, some college courses have only a midterm and a final. No extra credit, no makeup assignments, no bailout term papers and definitely no exemptions.

When I first started taking those tests, I felt like a prizefighter who was just hoping to survive 12 rounds and not get knocked out. The more I endured that drama, however, the more confident I became. The palms were a little less sweaty, the nerves a little easier to control. Each test became more manageable.

Practice makes perfect, and the best time for our aspiring college students to practice is now.

I know some will say that many of the district's students have gone on to do well in college, but is that because of or despite the fact they exempted exams? If we're talking best practices, I think they should take finals.

As for encouraging attendance, find different incentives. How about discounts at a local restaurant or downloads from iTunes or gift cards from the mall? I know those may cost more in this demanding economy, but exam exemptions are not a reward if they hurt a student's preparation for the future.

My guess is that most students benefiting from exam exemptions would be at school anyway. Attendance incentives should not be for high-minded kids willing to show up sick just to protect their lofty grade-point averages. It should be for the student who doesn't have a caring parent present to get his butt out of bed.

Isn't it interesting that Pasco County has no exam exemptions but attendance numbers slightly higher than Hillsborough County?

I might be able to live with exam exemptions for students who have shown a mastery (A average) of the material. But exemptions for showing up? A reward for doing what you're supposed to do? No way.

My kids won't thank me today, but maybe they will when they walk across the stage with a degree in hand.

That's all I'm saying.

Ernest Hooper also writes a column for the Tampa Bay section. Reach him at hooper@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3406.

Schools' exam policy sends wrong message 03/12/09 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 5:40pm]
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