Exams? Exams.

Well, Midterm Exams are upon us. In the interim between our last blog post about exams and today, we have been engaged in productive dialogues with colleagues, our full department, with English teachers from other schools across the nation, and with experts in the field.

After reviewing a number of models and exchanging ideas, here’s what we have concluded:

  1. you need to have an agreed upon purpose for administering an exam (answer the questions: Why are we giving this? What do we want students to be able to do? Why do we want students to be able to do this?)
  2. and the exam itself needs to allow students to showcase their ability.

Notice that I used the word “showcase” in number two above.  Often times I hear educators say that they need or want the exam to hold students “accountable” for the material covered in class during the semester. I have heard topics ranging from definitions of literary devices and character names, to identifying and explaining how an author creates mood. In fact, I was guilty of using this same vocabulary when speaking about exams in the not so distant past.  However, the problem with that language is that “accountability” approaches this major assessment in a punitive manner.  Instead of asking what questions or format will best allow your students to show you what they know, it tends to generate tests that ask students to work with a very narrow focus or within a very narrow skill set for a very major grade.  English just isn’t that type of discipline.

English, or the study of Literature, should engage readers in grappling with big ideas and questions: What did the author say? Why did she say it? Do you you agree with her? Do you like the way the story was written?  Being able to talk about an author’s message, purpose, intent, writer’s craft and literary devices; connecting the text to our own knowledge and experience base; and deciding the extent to which we agree with a text in all of its subtleties are the ways in which good readers read.  I want an exam that will allow students to show me how well they can do this.

Not all members of our department are engaged in Independent Reading yet, so our students have different knowledge bases coming in to this assessment. We were also tasked with giving the same exam across grade levels so that there was a uniformity in assessment. So, we had to craft an exam that worked for classrooms that engage in Independent Reading as well as classrooms that are currently not vested in this practice. As a department, we were able to agree that we wanted:

  • students to work with a new text.
  • students to connect this new text to readings they have done over the semester.
  • this response to take the form of a singular essay.

So, here is what we have devised – an exam that asks students to read and analyze a new text, generate an interpretive question based on motifs in the new text, formulate a thesis that answers the question, and then use the new text and works they have read this semester to prove their thesis.  

I will let you know in a few weeks if we have met our lofty goals or if this fails miserably and we have to go back to the drawing board and create a new assessment.  Without further ado, here are:

The Exam

The Rubric

Instructions and Examples of Interpretive Questions

Sample Excerpts to Practice Annotation and Generating Questions

This is our exam for the 11ACP level (ACP is our non-honors, non-remedial level).  The 9ACP and 10ACP exam will use the same instructions with the exception that instructors will offer the students a choice of questions to answer instead of asking students to self-generate. Differentiation is made for honors and remedial levels on each grade as necessary.  For instance, my 9 Honors students will be given the exact same instructions as the 11ACP exam (so they are expected to self-generate a question as the 11th graders are) but they will respond to a different excerpt of text.

A special thank you to Penny Kittle for offering suggestions and models, and to Three Teachers Talk for their post that grapples with exams.

So, that’s what we’re doing.  How are you approaching exams at the midyear?



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