Finals: Week 18

Oh, finals week. I never want to meet you again.

I think I ranted and raved enough on Twitter to get my point across that I have no idea what I'm doing when it comes to finals (and probably many other things too). But I would just like to pose one question to the universe: why is this not taught in college? Designing curriculum in general was not part of my education program. We talked about literacy and about out-of-date ways to use technology and diversity but we never learned how to design effective lessons, how to write your own assessments, how to use those assessments to improve instruction, or basically anything important. I did learn the useless format of a Madeline Hunter lesson plan, but that's the extent.

Anyway, things did not go well for finals week. We had evens on Thursday and odds on Friday. My plan was to review Monday-Wednesday, test on Thursday and Friday, week done. Not so easy. I had no idea how to create a final or how to write a review for said final. I am the only algebra and geometry teacher in my school so there is no such thing as a department final. So I did what I do best: stole it off the Internet. I then tried to modify it to more closely match what I've actually taught. This started out somewhat okay. Once I finished the Algebra Exam, I wrote out review questions that seemingly matched the test. Then, and here comes my mistake, I made the Geometry review based on our old tests. Sounds good, right? The thing is, the review was nothing like the test. Students were confident because the review was exactly what they had been doing all year but when it came to the test, they were nothing alike at all. I made the test multiple choice for all the wrong reasons. a. I thought it would be easier for them b. I knew it would be easier for me. c. That's what everyone else was doing. I have since learned my lesson.

My original thought was to make the test like all the past ones but have them show work on the test and write answers on a separate sheet. Then, I could easily grade the answers while simply glancing to make sure they showed their work. But alas, I succumbed to the many pressures.

I gave my first Geometry test on Thursday. It was a disaster. Apparently while I was doing my final edit the night before, I deleted a bunch of diagrams and drawings. I had to find the original tests I stole them from before I could then draw them on the chalkboard. The test was 50 questions and the students had 1 hour. Only one person even got close to being done. The rest didn't even make it to number 30. I didn't take into account how much work they would have to do to even be able to choose a, b, c, or d.

I edited the test for Friday. I cut out 13 questions completely and edited some of the remaining ones. That didn't work either. Students complained this test looked nothing like the ones we had been doing and they actually preferred working out the problems rather than multiple choice.

It went so badly that I was near tears and the students were the ones consoling me. They said, "It's alright Ms. Miller, it's only your first time." "We still like you." "It wasn't that bad." "We just needed more time." "Maybe we're just the slow kids."

Algebra exams went better. No real disasters or complaints. At least until I graded them. Why are grades so much lower? My usual students landed in the lower 80s and that trend seemed constant. I had to curve grades in every class and I did not like it. It felt very unfair and un-meaningful to try to pull their grades out of thin air. But as some of my twitter friends pointed out, it's more accurate to give a grade based on my professional judgement of their past grades than to assign a grade from one flawed test. I am just not happy with assessments in general.

How can we objectively measure something that isn't objective? I don't get assessed like this in real life. Sure, I get two formal evaluations a year. But most of my assessments come from results. Are my students test scores improving? How many students are failing my class? How many referrals have I written? How do I treat students? How much of a team player am I? Those are the things I am assessed on but what difference do those results make? I can be a bad teacher and get the same pay, just with different treatment from my colleagues. I can be an excellent teacher and get the same pay, and better treatment from (some) colleagues. Are these meaningful assessments of my abilities? What are meaningful assessments of my students abilities?

I always hear about you know you've learned something when you can teach it to others. I know that's true in myself, because I would never be able to create tests and lessons without truly knowing how to do the problems myself. The thought of having students create problems and such is very intriguing to me. What if my assessment was to give the students an answer and they had to create a problem that resulted in that answer? That prospect truly excites me. I know it has to jump at least 2 levels of Blooms compared to the questions I'm asking now. I love to create and design and it seems that's what the rest of us cell-phone-customizing-Youtube-watching-Myspace-layout-making-picture-editing-outfit-accessorizing people are about too. How can creative design become my assessment process? How do these assessments affect their lives or mine?


  1. You were left in a very tough position. You had to create an assessment that is supposed to be very important to the students; one that they may spent a great amount of time studying for. I'm not sure how your school works, but many schools use finals as a large chunk of a student's grade. However, you - and most young teachers, including myself - did not receive proper training in creating assessments and curriculum.

    I remember being downgraded in one of my clinical placements for not having proper skills to assess my students. But my cooperating teacher also said that she made a mistake by not modeling different assessment strategies for me. I was very upset by this because it somehow became my fault that I was never taught this.

    You did the right thing by bumping the students grades up. Unfortunately, what you learned by this experience is probably something that could not have been taught in college.

  2. I hate giving finals... but its required. So I usually make them just about 1 1/2 times as long as a regular test, and I take questions directly off other tests they've taken. That way I know I'm testing them exactly on what I've assessed them on during the year. I'm still addressing the standards they needed to meet for the course, and not throwing a last minute curve ball at them.

    I've recently seen, and want to give a try, to assigning each chapter to a group of kids and having them come up with a summary and review questions to share with the class. If appropriate, these questions can be used to make up the final. I haven't tried it, but I like the idea! It would hopefully really engage their thought processes to have to determine how to best check for understanding on their given material.

  3. I think my best advice would be to explore the idea of backwards planning. When you go into the school year with your assessment plan done, and your final exam already written, you are not shooting at a moving, unknown target as you go. You get clear in your mind from the start what expectations you have from the students; that way, there are no surprises for you or for them. Instead of putting a test together at the last minute based on what you taught them, you plan lessons based on what standards you want them to achieve. It may seem like a small difference, but it can revolutionize your teaching practice.

    Of course, you may need to end up modifying your assessment plan, or editing your final. But overall, you will know what you are doing from week to week and day to day. You will start feeling more confident about everything, knowing that you have a clear plan to follow.

    Over this break, if you have the time, I'd suggest trying to write your spring final. Then, use that as a guide to chunk out your time over the coming semester. Use formative assessments as you go to see what skills you need to reteach.

    I'm definitely going to be doing this for my algebra class. Since I am planning it again for the first time in years, it's almost like doing it for the first time. The difference being, of course, that I now know much better how to write curriculum and assessments than I did in my first year.

    And I agree - I didn't really learn how to do any of this effectively in my ed program either. Good thing there's the internet now. :)

  4. One idea you could use is to go through the lessons in the book that you used and pick questions from the assignments. There should be enough to make a review and a test that matches the review. It would be fastest to hand write it, but if you don't like that you can type them up on Goggle docs since it does have an formula writer in it.

  5. I agree with Dan. This is how I learned to more effectively assess my students. I heard one time that we should "begin with the end in mind". I took that to heart and it has made all the difference.

    Also, remember, algebra I students are just learning to take cumulative finals. They are new to the idea that they are responsible for all the material they learn within a semester. This is something they should get better and better at through out high school.

  6. Exams are challenging - no doubt about it. I agree with what was said about backwards planning. If you are looking. For a resource on this look at "Understanding by Design" by Wiggins & McTighe.

  7. Does your school provide new teachers with a mentor? Every school should, and new teachers need to take advantage of it! If they don't you need to attach yourself to a teacher in your school that you feel comfortable with that can give you direction and support. Even if they teach another subject, just having their advice is worth it. Having your curriculum mapped out for the semester in advance is crucial. If you take the time right now to do this you will not be sorry. To create tests, I use Examview. It is a program that allows teachers to create tests based on their texts and state standards. You can select questions by the tested indicator and even tweak the numbers around if you want, question type such as short answer, mult. choice, etc. Allows you the choice of making multiple versions that you can use for different classes. Saves a lot of time. I hope that you take the time to relax over your holiday break... Vacation means to VACATE!

  8. Craig,
    I think the most important things I've learned couldn't be learned in college.

    Mrs. L,
    I think that way of reviewing would ensure students learn one chunk of material but then tune out when it came to the material of the other groups.

    I read UbD over the summer but I needed more of a how-to guide to backwards planning. How do I know what to put on a final when I don't even know what I'm going to teach or how far I will get into the curriculum? I have nothing to base it on. I just hate assessing and I think I suck at it as well. I want to move to a more standards based approach but I have no idea how to go about it.

    Thanks for suggesting Google Docs, I hadn't thought about the formula writer. My textbook actually has a 10 question standardized test at the end of each chapter and I did use those questions on the final but somehow, it just did not work it out.

    Mrs. H,
    You're right about algebra 1 students but I don't know that any of the students get any better than this!

    Read the book but I needed something more specific. Still looking for that book...

    We don't have a mentoring program but I have adopted the English teacher as my mentor. Although she is not a lot of help in the area of curriculum design, she has definitely been a big help in many areas. I also have tons of teacher mentors on Twitter who save my life on a daily basis. I haven't used Examview but a friend is sending me a copy so I am excited about that. I've taken a few days too vacate but some things will just have to be done!