Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Question of the Day: Final Exams

I'm posting these "questions of the day" all through our school's exam week as a way to spark discussion about topics that have been popping up on Twitter. Today's question is therefore especially timely.

Question (ok, ok... actually four questions):

In assessing a student's understanding, how effective do you find traditional "Scantron + Short-Answer / Essay" final exams? Do you feel like you gain a better sense of the student's understanding of the material as you grade this type of test? Have you ever been so surprised at a student's success on one of these exams that it made you re-evaluate your overall assessment of the kid? Or do these types of exams generally tell you nothing more about the student than what you already know?


  1. It's a very controversial issue. I work at a language school that administers compulsory final exams to test all the strategies needed to be a competent user of the language. One advantage of this system is that the students feel the obligation to study all the topics developed throughout the year and the result shows how much they have learnt. These exams are administered by the heads of the language school and that offers an unbiased view of the student and they're standardised. In most of the cases the grades obtained match my concept of the student as their teacher.
    Marisa (@Mtranslator)

  2. Shelly, I don't necessarily think that any tradition type of final exam tells you anything new about the student - it just isn't designed to.

    For my Latin IIs, I'm giving them the opportunity to demonstrate to me (and to themselves) that they can apply all that we've learned throughout the year to work through an unseen passage in a realistic context: they are allowed to use their brains and any resource that they bring with them (noun + verb charts, dictionary, whatever).

    To spruce things up and make it a little more enjoyable (in an otherwise very stressful week for students), the passage that they are reading is the 'Novae Vestes Imperatoris' from Barocas' 'Fabulae Mirabiles'.

    When it boils down to it, I don't feel the need for a 'Final Exam' because I know exactly where each of my students are at in their Latin careers. But, since I'm mandated to give one that appears to be a traditional exam, I might as well make it as enjoyable for them (and me) as it can be in this setting.

  3. I think it definitely depends on the subject. I teach physics, so part of my assessment is scantron, but the rest is a free-response type format. And, no, I've never had any do so well on an exam that I re-evaluated the assessment of the child. I've found (generally) that my formal assessments generally fall right in line with my informal assessments of a student. Does that mean I'm doing something right? :-)

  4. I'd rather have them do a project presentation, where they had to use their knowledge of physics to complete the project. That's what they'll be doing as scientists or engineers. They won't be taking exams.

    However, colleges still use written exams, so I need to make sure they have some practice in that too. Plus, our District has standard final exams for each class.

  5. I think final exams are obsolete, but in a field still trapped in the 19th century, I am not surprised that they still exist. We know enough about assessment to transition to the next step, but public schools change at a glacial pace. If you teach a unit and assess it along the way (think formative assessment) you find out what each student knows and adjust your teaching accordingly. Students who are not proficient at the end of the unit should get support and as many opportunities to pass as they need. Your units should build on each other so that if a kid passes the last one they are ready for the next course, which should start then as opposed to making the child wait until the next school year. This, of course, would require intelligent use of technology. I'm only glad I can learn at my own rate without being constrained by obsolete school practices.
    Douglas W. Green, EdD - Blog - DrDougGreen.Com

  6. We are having difficulty with our final exams also. Many of our students do zero studying for them. They only have to have 4 passing grades (out of 4 quarters and 2 exams) to "pass" the course, so many do not see a need to even try on the exam (a D average is good enough). Then there is the minimum 45% (another topic) so "if I just sign my name you have to give me a 45%." I do a two part exam with one half being project and one half being short answer problem solving. But this does not get rid of the "caring" & "effort"issues. No the exams have not told me anything new about the student. Mostly I have been disappointed in the effort and the realization that they do not know most of the material we worked on during the semester.

  7. Being an English teacher I have a different take on the issue. I generally stay away from scantron type tests (even though they're easy to grade, they're also easy to luck into a good score). All of my final exams (and exams, and quizzes, etc.) have been essay based. At that point it becomes VERY clear who knows the material and who does not. Projects I leave more open for individualization and fun, but I like my essay based tests and quizzes.

  8. Been teaching history/social studies since 1998 and I have never, ever given a multiple guess test (ok--when I taught AP they did some practice mc tests---but all of my regular tests were short answer, essay or DBQ). Not sure I'll get away with it much longer--even though I've heard "common assessment" for years I think they are serious this time.

    I tell my students on day 1 that my goal for them is to read a Newsweek article and understand the historical references or look at an editorial cartoon and get the joke----so that is the kind of thing I assess on the final. They also need to know some terms and people--but they write out answers. They also need to put events in chronological order and identify places on a map. But I just don't see how a mc format would help assess these skills?

    I tell the kids that I am morally opposed to putting wrong answers on a test. But the real reason is that I don't think mc is an accurate assessment---did the student intend to fill-in that choice or was it an educated guess or a random guess? More importantly--when they come up with an incorrect answer, where did they go wrong? Can they defend their answer with good historical thinking? Were they almost right? Did they misread/misunderstand the question? I just don't get quality feedback from mc.

  9. I prefer using assessments that are more performance based. This allows for the students to make a variety of choices during the learning process. These types of assessments are more informative for me as I observe how the children work. This tells MORE than any scan tron / essay assessment.

  10. I would also rather my students have choices on how they could best present the knowldege they have gained in the content area. Each child has an indiidual learning style and show their knowledge in different ways. I don't think that final exams are showing the true potential of most students.

  11. LIfe is full of final exams. Students and teachers need to have a culminating assessment that holds them accountable for what they have learned and for what has been taught throughout the course. If the teacher writes a good final exam that asks students to apply knowledge learned throughout the course to new situations (i.e. reading passages, writing prompts, poetry, scientific problems, math problems, etc.), then students who have learned the body of knowledge and know-how will be able to solve problems and "show" how they have grown over the year. In a way, teachers are held even more accountable or should be to make sure that they are not dropping their responsibility by writing a poor exam or by not writing an exam at all. Great exams challenge great students, and great students will rise to the occasion. We should all be creating final exams to the highest level in our classes. I give performance-based assessments throughout every unit, but for a final exam, after all the final creative projects, students are excited to put it all together and end the year with a final exam.

    I write this post as my students are energetically applying what they have learned in English 9 this year.

  12. Why test what can be googled if it is needed? WWII can be said to have started on September 1, 1939. When it started is meaningless to an understanding of what caused it to happen. Education takes a leap forward when Scantron machines are put in museums and understanding, based on conversation and collaboration, becomes the measure of evaluation.

  13. Everybody -- Thanks for you comments.


    Language is an interesting one. And for me, it always comes down to: if we threw this student into a culture where the only option was to converse in the target language, would they succeed?


    That's the trouble with so many traditional exams: they don't tell you anything new. I think if teachers designed exams as a learning tool -- for themselves -- then we'd be on the right track.


    Physics is cool because we can actually do it all the time anywhere we are. I'd think a good physics exam would be to use the physics you've learned about to make something. In that way, I think physics and art class have a lot in common.


    I like the approach of treating them as scientists. After all, we don't treat student athletes "like" they are athletes. We treat them "as" athletes. All disciplines should keep that in mind.


    We are in agreement on formative assessment. I think of it like learning to ride a bike: it's not as though once you fall off you've "failed" and therefore will never ride a bike.


    I often find that when students appear to "not care" it's time to change up what you are doing in class. School should be driven by student learning, not adherence to a standard curriculum/test/exam.

    @Mister Jones

    Essay tests can be great for kids who express their understanding best through essays. But for some really bright kids, that skill just isn't part of their most effective repertoire. I've been struggling with this issue myself and this year have been working on teaching/assessing process and procedural thinking (having students put together outlines, argument explications, logic, evaluation of primary sources) without always writing an "essay" to do it. It's an ongoing thing figuring out how to do this as a teacher.

    @Mary Lou

    I like the current affairs angle. Next year, I'm making daily listening to PRI's 'The World' podcasts the basis for everything we do in Human Geography class.


    Performance-based is great. Often difficult in a final exam format -- at least in the core academic courses. Would love to hear your ideas about how to do that.


    Mostly agreed.


    Nice comment, but I'd argue that most things in life are less regimented and inflexible as a standard high school exam. And while it's true that we are tested throughout life, rarely are those tests "graded" (or rarely are those "grades" as relevant) as we convince students that their final exam grades are. Further, I'd rather not see a distinction made between "creative" projects and other forms of assessment. All forms of assessment need to tap into the creative abilities of the student; I'm not convinced that the "usual" big bubble test does that (I realize I am over-simplifying). I'm with you all the way on problem-solving; that's the key to merging understanding, motivation, and creativity together in a way that us teachers can really assess a kid.

    Great point.

  14. I would add that mc exams do have some value, but it has little if anything to do with evaluating individual students. Instead, they provide data for unit planning; they are excellent for exposing common misconceptions among large numbers of people. I am working to move them more to the front of my units. As many of you have stated, summative assessments really should be much more integrated and involve more higher-order thinking (and acting) than is really possible to do well with a one-period, one-paper exam.

  15. medical inquiry into a patient's state of health: checkup, examination.


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