A Fresh Look at Final Exams

A Fresh Look at Final Exams


Megan Hyland

As we begin the month of May, and start to think about the end of the school year (gulp!), it’s hard not to think about the many events that will take place before the end of June. Assemblies. Field trips.  Awards celebrations. Family Gatherings. Stepping Up ceremonies. Graduations. With these social and celebratory events, however, come the heavier tasks and conversations.  Report cards. Retentions. Unit tests. Culminating Projects. Comprehensive Essays. And, of course, final exams.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve begun to shift our focus at Boston Collegiate to looking critically our end of the year assessments.

Where We Were

In the past, teachers have met in departments, usually at some point in May, and completed an “audit form” (see below) to look specifically at the rigor and mode of questioning on their final exams.  Information from this sparked conversations among teachers, and led to small adjustments of the finals to become more vertically aligned.


Math and Science

We found that this activity helped teachers make immediate changes to their final exams.  However, we found that it was difficult to evaluate the quality of our exams without looking specifically at the CCSS.  We also missed a valuable opportunity by not revisiting these forms and takeaways when we launched into the next school year.

Where We Are

This year, in an effort to tune our exams to become more standards-aligned and to encourage reflections for long-term change, we’ve made some significant efforts to our audit form (see 8th Grade ELA,History, and Mathematics below).

While in department meetings, teachers will be looking at final exams with eyes on three key ideas: alignment of standards, needs assessment and PARCC considerations.  The new form is broken into three respective parts to address these topics.

Part #1: Alignment of Standards

There are two purposes of part one of the audit form: one, to determine the standards assessed and the frequency at which they are assessed; and two, to get a snapshot of distribution of item difficulty. Teachers will read through their final exam and will assess which questions assess which standards, and will note this on the indicated column.  By doing this while looking closely at the details of the standards, teachers will decide if their test question assesses the standards fully, or if it needs to be edited to fully assess the standard.  Most likely, teachers will also find questions that are not directly connected to the standards, which will then lead to the conversation of whether or not the test question should be included on the final exam, or if it should be taken out entirely.

Simultaneously, teachers will be identifying the level of rigor of the questions, by marking the second column from the left with a 1, 2 or 3, with each of these numbers corresponding with a level of Bloom’s.

Part #2: Needs Assessment

From there, teachers will move on to part two of the audit form, which will involve reflecting on the data collected from part one and identifying content gaps assessed on the final exam.  After recognizing the standards that are not assessed, our hope is that teachers can make appropriate shifts.  These shifts might include something simple as adding test items to assess the standards.  This, however, assumes that teachers have taught those standards thoroughly throughout the year. If, on the other hand, this exercise illuminates gaps in the curriculum, then we ask teachers to make note of this so that they can address these gaps when we return to school in August.

It should be noted that we do not expect all standards to be covered on each final exam, as we recognize that teachers have many tools to assess student mastery. We know that sitting down for a two hour exam is not the best, nor the only way to capture students’ understanding of content.  We hope that the data gathered will shed light on whether the assessment provides a meaningful snapshot of what students should know and be able to do.

Part #3: PARCC considerations

The third part of this activity asks teachers to look specifically for PARCC-aligned items and reflect on the rigor and mode of delivery of items on the exam.  Evidence Based Selected Response (EBSR), text-dependent questions, writing from multiple sources, balance of procedural, conceptual, and applied problems, multi-select multiple choice items, open response with justification, etc. are all items that students have been exposed to throughout the year, and on the PARCC PBA.  Our hope is that the final exam mirrors the critical reading and writing and conceptual math thinking that we prepare our students for throughout the year.

Discussing Alignment

One of our many goals of looking closely at final exams is to check for alignment—both vertically and horizontally. Once teachers complete and individual audit of their exam, department chairs, along with a Director of Instruction, are going to meet to review the grades 5-12 exams with an eye towards vertical alignment of content.  Additionally, grade level leaders will meet with a Director of Instruction to review all of the grade level exams with an eye towards horizontal alignment of rigor.  Data will then be collected from this review and shared with teachers at our All Staff Professional Development afternoon on 5/20.  Teachers will have time to review feedback, discuss exams with each other, meet with their department chair and grade level leader. Since we know that teachers’ time at any point in the school year (and the end of the year is certainly no exception!) is valuable, time will be given on this day for teachers to solely work on making changes to their exam.

Where We Are Going

We anticipate a range of perceptions about this year’s assessment audit.  We know that some teachers are going to be eager to dig into their exam and find ways to make it more standards-aligned.  We also know that some teachers might feel discouraged if their class has not been heavily centered on the standards.  Our goal here is not to separate the “standards-aligned teachers” from the “not-so-standards-aligned teachers”; we recognize that some teachers have, for many reasons, focused solely on the major work of the grade level.  Our goal, instead, is for teachers to walk away knowing what they need to do to improve their exam, and—perhaps even more importantly—what to improve on next year.  We’re hoping to use their reflections to spark conversations and coaching meetings in August when teachers arrive for the 2015-2016 school year.  Until then, we’ll be focusing on creating final exams that reflect the year’s curriculum and rigor.

7 responses to “A Fresh Look at Final Exams

  1. Pingback: A Fresh Look at Final Exams | Core Transition |...·

  2. Pingback: A Fresh Look at Final Exams | Common Core Onlin...·

  3. Wow- really fabulous stuff here! I may be missing something, but it appears that the link for math and science points to the literacy audit form. Would you be able to post the math and science audit forms as well?

    Curious about how you assess rigor level of the whole exam- is there a mix of bloom’s level’s that you encourage teachers to meet? Or norm the difficulty level of exams within a grade or department? Thank you!

  4. Hi Jen! I am working on it as we speak. Should have it up before lunch.

    As for difficulty and the appropriate mix, we have not dictated a secret sauce or proportion, but do make it part of the debrief and review process. Often the discussion in mathematics, this round, is about having a strong spread of difficulty within each of the major clusters.

    In addition, we are slowly moving away from Bloom’s (in mathematics) and more to a cognitive complexity like DOKs, rigor matrix, or PARCC’s cognitive complexity model.

  5. Fabulous. Thank you! Glad to hear that Bloom’s is not the central theme for math. I would love to keep in touch about what your decision is around how you land… the rigor matrix/DOK is more user friendly and the PARCC model more implication for external assessment. We will be working on this in the upcoming year. Is there any documentation you know of about PARCC’s secret sauce?

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