Since Marian Central Catholic High School opened in 1959, its students have taken first-semester final exams in mid-January. During Christmas break, students pored over study guides and completed assignments. Assistant Principal Cheryl Loy characterized Christmas vacation as “the break that [wasn’t] a break.”
This year, Marian joins a growing number of high schools in the United States that have rearranged the academic calendar so students finish the first semester before Christmas vacation. At Marian, students are taking their finals Dec. 19 to 21. Woodstock and Woodstock North high schools made the switch to pre-Christmas exams seven years ago.
The change in exam schedule necessitated starting the school year earlier, so Marian students reported to school Aug. 17.
“I wanted to die,” said senior Addison Fortin. As Christmas and exams drew closer, Fortin was able to see the positive side of the change. “Getting out in May [as opposed to June] makes it feel like the school year’s going faster,” she said.
Guidance counselor Tom Kruse said the advantages of taking final exams before Christmas break “far outweigh the disadvantages.” First, he pointed out, “The students don’t have to worry about anything over break.”
Tiffany Teubert, a senior, cited the advantage of having exams on the heels of classroom instruction with no vacation gap: “You remember everything,” she said.
Kruse also noted the advantage for the faculty.
“Teachers can start the new semester out of the box after Christmas with no reteaching,” he said. English teacher and former Marian student Kasey Gallagher looks forward to “the calm after the storm. We get to have a real break and relax,” she said. “We don’t have to answer emails and can have time with our families.”
Loy shared that pre-Christmas exams have more profound advantages than convenience and aligning with neighboring schools’ calendars. Marian hosts a series of workshops for parents titled “Conversations that Matter.” The second workshop, “Raising Resilient Teens,” partly covered how to help high school students deal with stress and anxiety.
Loy pointed to three factors that have raised the stress level for high school students: social media, multiple sittings for college placement exams and colleges’ expectations that students take the most challenging class work, particularly Advanced Placement courses.
Social media, Loy said, is an “ongoing, relentless invasion.” Emails from colleges arrive in students’ inboxes with constant reminders that time’s running out to apply to a university, craft an essay for a scholarship or submit necessary paperwork. Because students can see emails on their phones, there’s “no time to step away from anything,” Loy said. She likened students’ omnipresent phones to a television, with an important exception.
“They can’t turn the TV off,” she said. “It builds and maintains stress.”
Gone are the days when students took the ACT or SAT just once at the beginning of their senior year. Researchers Matt Harmston and Jill Crouse put the percentage of students who take the ACT multiple times at 45 percent in 2015. Colleges reward this practice by accepting students’ highest score in each area, such as English or math, allowing students to cherry- pick their best scores from different sittings for the test. Between tests, many students work with a tutor or take test preparation courses after school.
Marian’s course catalog includes 21 honors and 15 Advanced Placement offerings for which students can earn college credit. For honors classes, Marian’s course catalog advises, “Students in these rigorous courses should expect extensive assignments and must assume responsibility for daily class participation.” AP courses come with the same course expectations, plus taking an exam in late April or May to determine if a student will receive college credit for the course.
“You see what [the students] are putting themselves through,” said Loy. “We have to ask, ‘Are they balanced?’”
Loy, a former English teacher, hopes students will take advantage of free time over Christmas break to “be bored.” She wants them “to pick up a book they want to read.” She underlined that helping students reduce stress and anxiety was the most important reason to adjust the exam schedule.
“It’s for their spiritual and emotional health,” she said, “to protect their downtime and let the brain recover.”