Harvard Wimps Out on Testing
Wouldn't it be nice not to have to take -- or grade -- final exams? But wouldn't it be nicer to know what students are learning?


Chester E. Finn Jr.

To oppose “results-based accountability” in education is close to a taboo nowadays, a position so antithetical to the spirit of the age that few dare mention it. Let us, therefore, declare ourselves shocked and saddened that Harvard University, in so many ways a pacesetter in education, is embracing that very position. 

Starting in September, courses in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) will no longer routinely require final exams. For most of Harvard’s existence, any professor wishing to forgo the practice of final exams required formal approval by the entire faculty. At least since the 1940s, professors have been required to submit a form to opt out of giving a final exam. But in fall 2010, professors will need to file a specific request to opt in. The dean of undergraduate education, Jay M. Harris, is already predicting that Harvard will reduce the academic calendar by a day or two in response to the eased testing burden.

Moreover, general exams — requiring seniors to demonstrate mastery of the fundamental knowledge of their major — are given in fewer and fewer departments. Even Harvard’s new General Education courses will abjure finals. We are left wondering: Without exams to prove it, how can students be sure that they are “generally educated” when they graduate? How can the institution itself be sure? Or doesn’t it care?

Some will say that other student work products — term papers, especially, but increasingly multimedia projects, too — are better gauges of learning than cumulative exams. Associate Dean Stephanie H. Kenen recently stated: “The literature on learning shows that hands-on activities can help some students learn and integrate the material better.”

In reality, however, the decline of testing at Harvard has little to do with any “literature on learning.” When we attended college there, four decades apart, some of our most fruitful learning experiences occurred in preparing for, and actually taking, final exams. They forced us to sharpen our thoughts and solidify our knowledge, whether it was by connecting the dots between Andy Warhol and Joseph Stalin for Louis Menand in 2006, or making sense of a year’s worth of American social history per Oscar Handlin in 1964. Term papers were essential, too — let us make no mistake. But they were easier to fudge with obscure research, borrowed insights, and artful prose. It was finals that forced us to think, to synthesize, to study, and to learn.

What’s really happening, we sense, is that Harvard is yielding to education’s most primitive temptation: lowering standards and waiving measurements for the sake of convenience. It certainly isn’t the only university to succumb, but given Harvard’s reputation as a trendsetter, we should expect better. Just imagine: Students will be delighted to forgo finals, and instructors will be thrilled not to have to create or grade them. Everybody finishes the semester earlier. (The last few weeks of class don’t really count when that material won’t be tested!) Yet Harvard’s leaders may eventually have to acknowledge that, with fewer test results, they will know less and less about what students are or are not learning within their hallowed gates.