We read this tweet, and first of all, let me just say how honored we are to be included with the likes of Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher. The link took us to this post: Reading (R)evolution post where we read about three high school English teachers much like us who are committed to independent reading and working hard to do right by their students. They asked about semester exams, and since Shana and I recently had a conversation that answered many of their questions, we jumped on the opportunity to share that discussion. We think our friends at Mamaroneck High School will find it helpful– maybe you will, too.
Do you have topic ideas you would like us to discuss? Please leave your requests here.
What are your thoughts on mid-terms/finals and what should be on them?
Shana: By their very nature, a lengthy exam of any sort measures a student’s fluency with reading and writing, and that’s one of the reasons I like them. I’ve been thinking a lot this year about sustaining length of thought and what that looks like–not just thinking about one subject for a long period of time, but continuing to read and write and experiment with that subject for a long period of time. Thus, I’ve tried to create routines that foster fluency, and a lengthy exam is one way to measure whether or not I’ve been successful with that goal.
As for the exam itself, I believe the format matters most. If we never do worksheets with multiple-choice answers during class time, why start now? I try to make my exam mirror our daily routines in class–there is a section for independent reading, for sustained writing, for critical reflection, and for goal setting.
Amy: Like you, I like the idea of measuring fluency with a lengthy exam — and while I do not think one exam on any one day can give an accurate measure of a student’s knowledge, I do think that sometimes it can give us a clear picture of a student’s growth. The exam itself is only one part though. Really, it all comes down to our alignment. How tightly do we align our standards and the skills we need students to master to our lessons and to our assessments, both formative and summative, within our unit cycle? Our semester and final exams should be another extension of that alignment. Too often, it is not.
What does a 2-hour exam look like?
Shana: My written exams all start with a message from me to my students–a missive that this is not an exam one can or should study for, but rather one where students have the opportunity to demonstrate growth, effort, risk-taking, and clear thinking.
From there, I separate the exam into options by subject, and for each subject, I give students a choice of three tasks to complete. For example, subject one is independent reading, and option one is creating a video booktalk, option two is creating a themed top ten list, and option three is creating a book trailer.
Amy: When I first moved to a workshop pedagogy, the thing I had to learn is the idea of skills-based instruction and helping students form habits of mind that relate directly to improving as readers and writers. I was no longer teaching a book. Thinking about the skills helped me choose mentor texts and design mini-lessons that would move my readers and writers. Since my instruction changed, I knew my exams had to change as well. And my exams never look the same from year to year.
In my previous district, and especially for grades 9th and 10th, which take the Texas state assessment, half of the semester exam was a common assessment created by the district. It mirrored the state assessment and could be used as a diagnostic tool to measure student growth as they prepared for the end-of-course exam. The other half of the assessment we created in grade-level teams. The second half was difficult because I was the only workshop teacher devoting time to independent reading and writing on my campus. I was able to convince my team to assess skills rather books, but even then, it was difficult to craft an assessment that reflected the practices in my classroom instruction when I was the only teacher with those practices.
A two-hour exam needs to give students the opportunity to show what they have learned about reading and writing, and I absolutely agree: it needs to mirror the practices we do in our daily instruction, but I also think it needs to give students the opportunity to show how their mastery of those practices help them tackle the kinds of critical reading and writing they must do in their lives beyond my classroom. For example, my students read independently and for sustained periods of time throughout the semester because I want them to learn to appreciate both the efferent and aesthetic value of books –we discuss this a lot as I conduct book talks, and they discuss books with each other. We read to enjoy but we also read to learn. My students write arguments on their blogs weekly, so one option for at least part of their semester exam is to write an argument about their reading. They marry what they’ve gleaned from their independent reading with the skills they’ve learned about writing. (I often give this portion of the exam in advance since it takes time for me to read and assess, but I’ve also given it as a timed writing on exam days. Students know the specifics of what I am looking for in their writing — this ties directly to the AP writing rubric I use to assess their blog posts — so I am able to score these holistically. And quickly.)
What should major assessments like an exam measure?
Shana: What makes a good reader or writer is not necessarily comprehensively covered in any set of curricular standards that I know about. Instead of feeling obligated to adhere strictly to the Common Core standards, or our WV Next Generation standards. Because what we value in our classroom is the process of becoming a strong reader and writer, my exam highlights process as well as product.
In addition, some things I really value, like students’ ability to talk to me and one another about their learning using specific academic vocabulary and evidence-based claims, are not measurable by a written exam. Thus, I assess those things at other times, like during conferences, rather than during exam week. I don’t feel obligated to try to assess “everything” on one exam–it’s simply impossible to do so.
Amy: Ideally, an exam should allow students the opportunity to show they have learned the material, right? If our exams are cumulative, and test the acquisition of skills, students should be able to earn credit by showing mastery — or at least growth — as indicated by their exam scores. This goes back to what I said before about alignment. It also represents a big problem in what I see with “grades.” Too often students receive scores on tasks that have more to do with their responsibility (or lack thereof) than on what they have actually learned. Take this scenario: say a student does not complete x, y, and z assignments for whatever reason. By nature of many grading policies, she receives zeroes for not doing the work instead of not being capable of doing the work. A major assessment should be an assessment that evaluates a student’s ability as it relates to what we have taught, and if she didn’t do x, y, and z, the final assessment should be a last stop measure to show she’s learned what we needed her to learn that semester.
Shana: I completely agree with the gap between grades and ability. The whole grade-feedback-evaluation-assessment-ability conundrum has been frustrating us for a while, I know. Some of my students did not finish the exam by the end of the week, but I won’t hold that against them–they will take it home over break and return it to me in the New Year. I’m not sure, really, if I ever feel confident “grading” an exam item by item. Instead, I consider the urging I give at the beginning of my exam–deep thought, strong effort, and time spent–and give a letter grade based on how well it is apparent that the student did those things well.
What would your ideal semester-ending assignment look like?
Shana: I usually end the first semester with a series of activities like I described above, but I always end the second semester with a multigenre project of some sort.
For my first semester exam, Amy and I brainstormed together how to preserve student choice, our values of having students create products rather than just complete tasks, and how to allow for the showcasing of learned skills rather than a “gotcha” mentality with new material. In our notebooks, we jotted down ideas and I wrote this up. I made it available to students the Monday before finals week, so they’d have about a week and a half to work on it. I think what’s important is that the last activity is reflection and goal-setting–looking back on 2015, and looking forward to 2016.
For this year’s end-of-course assignment, I’m excited to do a spin on Tom Romano’s literature relationship paper, in which students create a multigenre series of writings focusing on their relationship with and reading of a text. I hope to have students re-read a favorite independent reading novel and write in many genres that include reflection, craft analysis, narrative, poetry, and more. With that end goal in mind, I have designed more written product assignments that deal with narrative and analysis than I usually do.
Amy: My midterm exam is much different than my end-of-course exam. I loved how we talked through what our exams would look like when we were together at NCTE. As you know, what you wrote up will work well for me. Thanks for sharing that and saving me the time of having to write my own. I did a few revisions, and mine looks like yours, except with one less choice of options — and it is only for 50% of the test. Students will work on it in class the week or so leading up to the end of the semester. We have a week and a half after winter break.
The other 50% will be practice for the critical reading part of the AP exam. The 90 minute block will be enough time to take a full-length practice test, important for stamina, and then talk through a few of the passages. Of course, the second portion of the exam will be more diagnostic for me than anything — although we have analyzed texts in much the same way the exam asks students to do. I haven’t decided how, or if, I’ll take a grade on it yet — my students are all over the place in terms of their critical reading abilities, so no doubt there will be a curve somewhere. I thought about taking a grade on the level of thinking I see in their annotations, but that isn’t fair. Not everyone needs to annotate the same way to truly think about a text. What I may do is have students write a one page reflection about that critical reading test after they take it, maybe set some goals for how they want to continue to grow as a reader during the spring semester. If they are honest with themselves, this reflection would be more specific about tackling complex texts than the reflection they write about their independent reading for the first portion of the exam. (And now I am just thinking as I write.)
Like yours, my students do a complex writing piece at the end of the year, which combines several different genres of writing. For the past few years, we’ve studied multi-modal feature articles and then written our own. On exam day we present our favorite parts to the class. Here’s a few examples of students’ published work from last year. Anthony wrote “Current and Future Sources of Energy,” Maribel wrote “Beauty Unlimited and Undefined,” Bryan wrote his immigration story. These types of assessments are my favorite.
Students take ownership of their writing and take pride in their finished products. They also evaluate their writing process and give themselves their own grade. After all, they do all the work: thinking, planning, researching, drafting, revising. They are the ones who know if they’ve accomplished what they set out to do.
Please join the conversation: What are your thoughts on exams in a workshop classroom?