“Final Exam” (short story) by Dmitri Bilenkin
English Publication History: The Uncertainty Principle (Macmillan, 1978)
Original: Russian (Последний экзамен), 1969
Translated by Antonia W. Bouis, 1978
Synopsis: In the year 2013, a horde of people mill about outside an examination room in dire worry; some panic while reviewing their notes. In a rush, they enter to sit at their desks, including the narrator. As the computer gives him his first question, he takes time to complete it, and insert it: “Describe the negative aspects of projection.” Easily completing the essay, he tackles the next question confidently: “The formula for self-respect”; thereon, his next question poses a problem: “Give the mathematical expression for the inverse of the reason-instinct relationship.” Regardless of the result after the five-question exam, the man is confident that Galya will still love him and their life together.
Analysis: At the beginning of the story, one man exclaims, “[N]owadays everyone is expected to pass more than a hundred exams in his life… There’s forty-seven in school…” Indeed, for every grade and every subject, students feel pressured to check boxes, tabulate numbers, circle choices, write essays, and so on as a performance to check their comprehension of the subject’s material.
In summary, exams are used to gauge whether the student 1) understands what was taught and 2) is ready to continue with their studies. Paper exams, like the ones we’ve experienced in school and the one featured in the test, are rather outmoded, according to many educators, including myself. Granted, it’s suitable for large, simultaneous groups, but for important assessments of knowledge, it’s better to make it unique, suited to the person. This is called authentic assessment. This more important the skill or subject, the more personalized the assessment should be. The story leads the reader to believe the exam is for one topic, but the conclusion will twist that assumption, thereby making an “authentic assessment” for the skill more imperative.
Review: Again, this story is quite simple though much short than “The Uncertainty Principle”, the former with six pages and the latter at twenty-five pages. Considering it’s brevity, the point of the story is not to impress nor plant of seed of wonderment, but to catch you off guard at the conclusion; however, when given some thought to the matter, the story does reverberate shyly with the reader giving a nod of agreement.