I haven't blogged in so long I've almost forgotten how. I had all kinds of ideas I wanted to blog and no time to do it in- now the situation is reversed. I'm going to blog my most recent calamity in hopes that that will jog my memory...

I wrote really good final exams.

I worked really hard and am really proud of what I accomplished.

Then the students took them.


In the past two years, I wrote terrible finals. Things we never really talked about, missing graphs and diagrams, questions with no answers, etc. It was bad. I cried.

This year, they cried. Okay, only one actually cried.

I created the tests. Then I broke the material up into three different days of review in order to cover everything. We did worksheets, whole class reviews, group game reviews, working one problem at a time, and so on. After each concept we've learned, we stop and write an index card on how to do it and an example problem. The students were allowed to use these index cards on the final.

Each test was 35 questions. 30 multiple choice, 5 open-ended, and all of them required thinking. It took the majority of the students the entire hour and twenty minutes to finish. It was hard and they told me about it. But only one person said they felt like it was things we had never done before. That's a huge improvement for me personally. The grades were not very good. About half failed. Out of all of my classes I had one A. One. Wow. I think I surprised even myself. I felt compassion for them but not guilt like in previous years.

But in a lot of cases, I felt like the grade truly represented their knowledge And in some it clearly didn't.

I honestly feel like the content of the tests was within their reach. They're just not used to stretchig.

This single event has taught me the importance of backward design more than everything I have read, heard, and discussed with others. I'm all excited to plan my unit tests ahead of time during the next semester. I know I should have done this from the beginning so I don't need a lecture on that.

My dilemma is, what do I do with the students' grades? Do I let them stand in hopes that students will take things more seriously and try harder? Do I cushion them because my unit tests didn't line up with the final exam and that's my fault? Do I give them a chance to make corrections when it is supposed to be a summary of everything they've learned? Do I just get over feeling bad when it's only the first semester and I let them use index cards as well? Will I get in trouble when my principal sees such terrible grades?

I need help from all you final exam fairies.

P.S. I started teaching things in December that I was teaching last year in February. I beat myself by two months. That is the power of a pacing guide people!


  1. When I started teaching at my current school, I asked a similar question. A 30 year vet said "giving a student a D- is not giving them anything". You can take that statement where you want to. I still use it often 24 years later.

  2. I question this statement "I started teaching things in December that I was teaching last year in February. I beat myself by two months. That is the power of a pacing guide people!"

    You may have been teaching faster, but were the students learning faster? If they'd aced the exam, I would have cheered for you, but since they did not pass an exam you considered fair, they clearly were not learning what you expected them to learn.

    I don't know whether the right solution is to slow down and give them more time to practice, to increase homework, to give more challenging unit tests, or some other change. But I wouldn't be so pleased about keeping to schedule if the students weren't keeping up.

  3. Dan,
    Thanks for your comment. It did make me stop and think. Would I feel worse if I 'gave' them good grades?

    My celebration is not that I am teaching faster; it's that I'm teaching better and more organized. But thank you for pooping all over that.

    And actually, if my students would have aced the exam, you would have commented and said I made the exam too easy and that my students weren't learning. You are a blog terrorist who comes to drop bombs on everything anyone says, regardless of the nature of the content.

    In my opinion, the solution is to give more challenging unit tests, which is what I plan to do. The question I'm posing is, what is the fair thing to do with the students current final exam grades? If you didn't have a solution to the question, then don't bother to comment. Your criticism and discouraging words only cause emotion, no action, which is what I'm looking for.

    If I was looking for someone to shoot me down, I would have went straight to you. Instead, I am asking the world at large for advice or suggestions because of their collective experience, not a finger pointing at my lack of. I too can easily look at my reflection and point out my flaws, so kindly step out of my mirror unless you have new light to shed.

  4. One of the schools I work with does something interesting: every test is cumulative. The final is just one more test, then. But it's had all sorts of unintended bonuses. Students retain better because they know it's coming back again, they make more connections, the teachers teach more with forward and backward connections and think more about what's most important as they revise tests and make up subsequent tests. Just a thought! I think it would go with your more challenging unit test idea.

  5. Sorry, it was not my intent to make you feel bad. The juxtaposition of "my students failed the test" and "I kept a faster pace" seemed like an obvious connection.

    I don't know what you should do with the student grades, because I don't know what the constraints on grading are at your school. At the university, if the students all failed a test, then they all failed. If there is time to remediate and get them to where you want them next quarter, great. I know that on the midterm of the first honors calculus class I took in college, the highest grade anyone got was a C, and 3/4 of the class failed the test. Everyone in the class had been a straight-A student in math classes in high school, so this came as a big shock. Most of the class recovered and got decent grades by the end of the course.

    But K-12 schools (and some college too, sad to say) often have grading systems that are more about school politics than about student performance, and I have little to suggest for dealing with political problems.

    Incidentally, if you really feel that my comments are harmful, I can remove you from my RSS subscriptions, so that I don't see your blog. It is never my intent to cause harm or pain to any of the bloggers I read. I read and comment on only the blogs of people I respect, even if I occasionally disagree with them.

  6. I am okay with disagreements, it's just that you always disagree. You never seem to have solutions or positive comments. You aren't causing me pain but how many people aren't commenting or blogging because they are afraid of criticism and harsh words? We are here to help and encourage each other, not to put each other down. I'm sure in your years of experience you have learned helpful things. Try sharing some of those instead of just being a negative Ned.

  7. What I took from gasstationwithoutpumps' original comment was that there's a possible connection between the low scores and your faster pacing, and it's worth investigating that possibility in case it affects future performance. Maybe it was a factor, maybe it wasn't. Perhaps that communication was not transferred the most effectively in this case, but I wouldn't consider that as reason to assume ill will on either side.
    Yes, it is risky blogging and putting ourselves out there because we're open to criticism. But I think part of the reason we put ourselves out there is because we invite feedback, which can sometimes be in the form of criticism. Blogging and commenting both have their risks and I think to become a better, more supportive community, we have to help each other improve at both. I think it's possible to leave criticism and to respond to criticism respectfully, just as we would to a student. Aren't these the same skills we try teach and model for our students?

  8. I'm in a similar situation. I, too, wrote excellent midterms this year. I revamped my pacing guide this year, so I can't really compare to where I was last year, but I am about two months BEHIND where I intended to be at this point because I have been doing so much reteaching and remediation.

    My exam tested exactly what I taught, and I allowed each class three days of review (advanced classes did so with deconstructed tests). Still, a lot of my kids bombed the test. For many, their grades accurately reflected their knowledge of the material; a few of my high achievers just got careless. In every class, I had a few that scored fairly high.

    I scaled their grades using the formula found at http://www.trottermath.net/personal/gradscal.html, something another teacher directed me to during a discussion on grade scaling.

    I love the idea of cumulative unit tests and I think I'll be doing that in the upcoming semester.

  9. Frank,
    I agree. And I welcome criticism and feedback, but I shouldn't have to search through all the negative words to try to find one little piece of truth. I also teach students that if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all. I also teach them to stand up for themselves. And yes, it's possible to criticize and respond respectfully, teachers do that all the time. That is what I'm trying to get from gasstationwithoutpumps. When I ask a question, think of me as an eager student awaiting an answer, not that now is the perfect time to point out where I've messed up. My history with him is that he always always posts something negative. Maybe he doesn't realize how he sounds, but maybe now he will.

  10. Meredith,
    Thank you for letting me know that I am not alone! I'm not feeling toooo bad because I know I will teach better next year and have better results.

    I checked out your link but I just wasn't feeling it. @druinok mentioned doing a square root curve. The student who got a 16% would then have a 40%. And the student who had a 77% would then have an 87%. I'm kind of liking that idea but I'm kind of liking the idea of being hard nosed and not changing them in the hopes that they will take class more seriously and try harder. I let them get away with so much as far as behavior that I feel like if I can be tough on this, maybe it will carry over to me being tougher on their behavior as well.

  11. From GSWP's response:

    I question this statement "I started teaching things in December that I was teaching last year in February. I beat myself by two months. That is the power of a pacing guide people!"

    You may have been teaching faster, but were the students learning faster? If they'd aced the exam, I would have cheered for you, but since they did not pass an exam you considered fair, they clearly were not learning what you expected them to learn.

    I don't know whether the right solution is to slow down and give them more time to practice, to increase homework, to give more challenging unit tests, or some other change. But I wouldn't be so pleased about keeping to schedule if the students weren't keeping up.


    Dear Ms. M,

    I have to agree with GSWP's comments and don't see anything offensive with what he wrote. He's honest in saying that he doesn't know why your students didn't do well since he wasn't in your classroom observing you, and he's on target in saying that it's important to find out the root cause(s) of student failure so that you can do something about it.

    I also agree with him that without evidence of improvement in student success compared to last year, it is impossible for me to conclude that covering more material in less time this year was a positive. It may have been, but you haven't convinced me that your pacing guide is setting the right pace for your at risk student population.

    You did ask for useful feedback, however, so I'll share some thoughts on the root causes and possible solutions.

    Discipline comes before instruction. You've mentioned in other posts that you want your students to have high expectations for themselves and you've also admitted that classroom management is a weakness. That's a huge root cause and there are some obvious benefits if you can turn that weakness into a strength: more time spent on instruction than on crowd control, increasing the focus and interest of your students who lose both when the class gets out of control, and more time to work one-on-one with struggling learners during in-class practice. I don't know if your university library has some videos on "Love and Logic," or you can obtain them or other behavior management training videos through inter-library loan, but I would recommend investing some time on that root cause, even if you don't have the time or cash to attend a seminar first hand. There's no way that I could make a meaningful difference with at-risk students if I didn't have classroom management down.

    Apologies if any of the above caused offense, but I know you have a huge challenge working at a rural school that's not making AYP, having a tiny math department so few colleagues to bounce ideas off or get first-hand perspective from on your students, and working with a largely at-risk population, and I therefore am trying to help even if it stings a little.

    Paul Hawking

  12. Of course you don't see anything offensive when you aren't the one being offended.

    The root cause of student failure is that my unit tests did not align well to the final exam. I mentioned that specifically in the post. I was not looking for a cause but an answer to whether I should curve their grades or let them stay.

    I've spent lots of time at classroom management conferences. I've read Love and Logic and other similar books. I have spent my entire teaching career investing in that root cause. But unfortunately, I cannot sit down and quit teaching until I become perfect at classroom management. Therefore, I continue on. It is a huge challenge.

    I'm not sure what you're useful feedback was supposed to be.

    Once again, the intention of this post was how to handle the grading situation and not my flaws as a teacher.

    I will remember in the future to post a success separately from a failure so I can feel proud without the negativity taking away from my success.

  13. You assume that the reason your students did poorly is because there wasn't backwards alignment between your final exam and unit tests. Two teachers, gswp and myself, aren't convinced that that's the root cause of student failure in your classroom. If the goal is to get students to be successful, then figuring out how best to curve your finals isn't the real issue. There are a million ways to legitimately adjust scores to reflect your students efforts in spite of mistakes by a teacher and you are correct that I haven't provided a recommendation of one. But your post made claims that following your pacing guide was a great thing and that we should all get on board with the "power" of a pacing guide when you didn't provide any logical basis to back up that claim: you covered more material in less time but your students still tanked their exams. I also didn't suggest *reading* books on classroom management but instead suggested attending a seminar taught by one instructor--not a melange of lectures during a conference--or watching a good video of teachers practicing effective classroom management techniques in the classroom so that you would have a model ingrained in your brain to follow when you're in the classroom. The point of replying to your post wasn't to pat you on the back for your successes but to provide some useful feedback on how to improve your students' successes. If you didn't find anything useful in it, that's fine but don't attack me for trying to be helpful. Since you feel that that's an appropriate way to respond to comments, I will unsubscribe from your blog and wish you and your students the best.