There's a dark cloud looming over area high school students' eager anticipation of Christmas break: final exam week.
Most local high schools are in the midst of finals this week, and the significance of those end-of-the-semester tests can be highly stressful for students.
"I think this is the worst time of the school year for everybody involved," said Rick McClard, Jackson High School principal. "Kids give up. They're tired and depressed after the first semester."
High school counselors and teachers say they can definitely tell a difference in students' behavior as finals week approaches.
"Stress comes out in different ways. I see students who are tired, short-tempered," said Sarah Nussbaum, guidance counselor at Jackson High School.
Unlike most area schools, Cape Girardeau School District will not hold finals until mid-January. Because the school district started late this year due to construction work, its first semester doesn't end until Jan. 24.
How to cope
High school guidance counselors say there are things students can do to deal with stress caused by final exams. Nussbaum advised students to stay organized, take time to relax and communicate their feelings.
Most educators agree that the students most affected by final exams are those at the top and bottom of their classes -- those with weak A's and those with D's.
Rhonda Evans, guidance counselor at Kelly High School in Benton, said she thinks juniors and seniors feel more stress than at lower grade levels because they're worried about keeping their grade point averages up for college scholarships.
At Kelly, students who achieved 100 percent attendance during the first semester are not graded on their final exams.
"There's so much pressure on students to do well," Evans said. "I see students so stressed that they're crying."
It's not just finals that have students feeling overwhelmed during this time of year. There's holiday events, community service projects with extracurricular clubs, part-time jobs and school athletics.
"Students have so many obligations outside of school during this time of year," said Kerrie Middleton, an algebra teacher at Jackson High School. "You can definitely tell they've got a lot on their minds."
Students like Leslie McNeely, a sophomore at Jackson, are struggling to balance their time between sports practice five nights a week, club activities and schoolwork.
"By the time I get home, it's 6 or 7 p.m. After I eat and shower, it's late," McNeely said. "I'm tired all the time. It puts me in a bad mood."
The significance of final exams on first semester grades varies from teacher to teacher at each school. This year, Jackson is one of several local high schools giving benchmark exams, which mimic the format of Missouri Assessment Program tests.
Benchmark exams have teachers in a particular subject area administering the same exam rather than creating their own. So if the district has seven Algebra I teachers, those seven teachers give the same final based on curriculum objectives.
"The whole idea behind benchmark exams is that students see the whole picture and not just a unit or chapter," McClard said. "The exams also give teachers feedback and validation about what they've been teaching."
This is the first time Jackson has administered the benchmark tests, so some teachers are giving both those and their own final exams.
"I don't think it's fair that we have more than one test in some classes," said Lauren Berndt, a junior at Jackson. "Finals are hard enough without that extra work."
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