Getting the Most Out of Your Final Exam
Updated: Mar 4
By Joshua Kunnath, an English teacher and department chair at Highland High School in Bakersfield, CA
The high school final exam is as ubiquitous in December as the Christmas tree and as commonplace in early summer as shorts and sandals. And while there is rarely cause for concern for following holiday traditions or summer fashions without giving them a second thought, in the context of schools, a lack of thoughtfulness and reflection can lead to numerous problems.
Whether your next final exam will be in the winter or summer, there’s a good chance that it can use some reflection and/or refinement. Because just like the box of swimwear that you don’t pull out until it’s time to go to the beach, final exams may not get much thought before they’re ready for use––and by that time, it’s probably too late to produce one that meets all of your pedagogical needs.
Unfortunately I’ve learned this the hard way.
My own lack of reflection and refinement led to a dreadful final exam at the beginning of my teaching career that still causes me to cringe when I think of it. I gave the assessment to my ninth grade English students at the end of the first semester, and it was mostly made of 50+ multiple choice questions on Romeo and Juliet. It was the typical type of final given by ninth grade English teachers at my school at the time, and because I didn’t know any better, I used the exam without giving it a second thought. Even worse, I dutifully allotted 20% of the semester grade to the test, following the recommended weighting of my school and district.
While I didn’t know exactly why this was poor practice at the time, it’s now clear to me that the major problems with the Romeo and Juliet final exam were issues with purpose, validity, and grading. Furthermore, I have a hunch that these issues may be more common in high schools than we may realize.
While many schools require high school teachers to give final exams (often in the name of “rigor”), they may fail to define a common purpose for the assessment. The problem is that while most educators feel a sense of the importance surrounding the final exam, they may have a hard time articulating exactly what that importance is. Some may say finals are important because they’re a big part of report card grades. Others may claim the importance lies in their place in high school culture. Still others may quip it’s just because their administrators say so.
But these answers still beg the question: Why give the final exam in the first place? Without a meaningful answer, little good can come from the assessment.
My Past Mistakes
My misguided Romeo and Juliet final exam clearly lacked a pedagogically-sound purpose. At the time, I had a general idea that finals were supposed to assess students’ learning from the semester, but this idea somehow didn’t translate into the actual assessment. In hindsight, my real purpose had little to do with student learning. It was actually something like give a final exam––because I was expected to, prevent student failure on the test––so I didn’t attract any negative attention, and collect evidence of student learning––because I was required to enter grades from the final in the gradebook.
As bad as this sounds, I wasn’t alone in assessing in this haphazard fashion. But who could really blame us? We had no formal education or training on creating final exams to guide us in the right direction. Instead, it was all trial and error. Further, the California state standards at the time did little to guide us in fostering and assessing student critical thinking skills, instead largely focusing on content.
The bottom line is that just like all assessments, final exams should be made with a pedagogically-sound purpose. So if a school requires final exams to be given but doesn’t establish a common purpose, it’s contingent upon each teacher or team to establish the pedagogically-sound purpose. Without a meaningful purpose, exams do more harm than good.
A good place to start is by considering that a common purpose for the final exam is to comprehensively assess student learning of priority standards from the entire semester or school year. While they may not articulate it in this way or even put it into practice this way, most educators believe final exams should do something along these lines. For this reason, it is a purpose that can be easy to establish and communicate. And perhaps most importantly, applying this type of purpose can help teachers to determine student learning growth and their own impact on student learning over the semester.
As I explore the concepts of validity and grading below, I apply this underlying purpose.
Once teachers establish a clear purpose for their final exams, they can go about constructing or refining them. One of the biggest considerations at this time should be assessment validity––or the extent to which the assessment measures what it’s intended to measure. But no one is saying a teacher must be a psychometrician to create an effective final exam. A teacher can produce a quality assessment with acceptable validity by taking time to reflect on several key elements:
the established purpose for the exam,
the priority standards of the semester being assessed,
the best way to collect accurate evidence of student learning of the standards,
and the potential limitations of the final exam (i.e., limited student time to complete the exam, student endurance to complete the exam, student stress, teacher time to grade, etc.).
My Past Mistakes
One of the major problems with my Romeo and Juliet final was the validity issues. Much of this occurred because I created the exam too late in the semester when I was overwhelmed with the day-to-day workload of the new classroom teacher. As a result, I had little time to create a thoughtful assessment, and instead I became desperate and needed to produce something in a hurry. This pressure also led to my willingness to adopt the exam items, focus, and format of other teachers without questioning the rationale or validity.
Further, I failed to identify priority standards to assess. Instead, I mainly tested students’ knowledge of the plot of the play, which was far from a comprehensive assessment of student learning over the semester. While multiple choice was an effective method to assess plot knowledge, it wasn’t the type of evidence I should have been collecting in the first place. I would have been better served to use constructed-response questions to assess students’ skills in identifying standards such as theme, characterization, and conflict that I taught throughout the semester. And because I never established a clear purpose, I made it impossible to determine the validity even if I wanted to.
Begin planning for the final exam early. Ideally, this means before the school year even begins. By backwards mapping in this way, like that presented by Grant Wiggins and Jay Mctighe in their classic text Understanding by Design two decades ago, teachers can be more focused in their instruction, and they can be more intentional throughout the semester in preparing students for success on the final exam.
Next, determine a handful of priority standards to be assessed that well-represent essential learning expectations during the semester. This may be something like one standard per unit, for a total of around four standards to be assessed on the final exam. The small number is important so that adequate evidence can be collected in the limited time of the exam.
Then create assessment items that can produce strong evidence of student learning. More likely than not, this will require mostly––if not entirely–– constructed-response items. Whether it’s short answer or essay, these question types can often provide thorough evidence of student learning that can’t be collected from multiple choice. While creating these items, be sure to consider the type of evidence that you would expect at the mastery level.
Finally, consider the many unique circumstances occurring during final exams to ensure you can gather the type of evidence that you’re intending to collect. The multiple factors that may inhibit a teacher’s ability to collect or interpret quality evidence of student learning may include:
high student stress,
limited student endurance to complete long exams,
limited time for students to complete exams,
and/or limited time for teachers to grade exams.
Traditionally, the final exam has a significant impact on semester grades––often comprising 20% or more of report card grades. But when one considers that many of these assessments lack purpose and validity, the accuracy of the final exam grade (the extent to which it represents student learning of priority standards from the semester) may be highly questionable. As a consequence, the accuracy of the report card grade can also be questioned.
Then consider additional factors that may contribute to the inaccuracy of final exam grades, including well-intentioned ones like offering extra credit or allowing students to use notes or a “cheat sheet” when taking the exam. Or consider some of the difficult realities, such as the high pressure put on teachers to grade many exams in a short amount of time––often while hearing grade concerns from students and parents. All of these factors are reason for pause to contemplate grading practices on the final exam.
My Past Mistakes
Perhaps the biggest mistake I made on my Romeo and Juliet assessment was that I made a bad final exam worth such a large part of the report card grade. My worst exam of the entire year––one devoid of purpose and validity––was worth more than any other single student task of the year. My failure to question the rationale of assigning 20% of the semester grade to the final exam resulted in significant issues with the accuracy of my report card grades.
Whenever possible, avoid using common or traditional final exam grading policies that fail to meet your pedagogical needs. Instead, ensure that your final exam grading practices align to the practices you’ve used throughout the year and also to the established purpose of your exam.
And the more valid and comprehensive your exam, the larger part of the report card grade it should be. After all, this is the most recent evidence that you have of student learning, and assuming it is valid, maximizing its part in the report card grade can also maximize the accuracy of this grade. Conversely, the less time you’ve had to create the final exam and the less confidence you have in its validity, the smaller part of students’ final grade it should be.
If you’re required to use a common grading policy that you feel lacks a pedagogically-sound purpose, try beginning conversations at your school about grading practices by questioning the rationale for such traditions. Consider reading and recommending grading reform texts such as Tom Schimmer’s Grading From the Inside Out or Joe Feldman’s Grading for Equity.
Because final exams often play such an important role in schools, it’s crucial that educators ensure that their assessments are of high quality. Doing so requires a significant time investment, ideally far in advance of the final exam event. By focusing their reflection and refinement on the areas of purpose, validity, and grading, teachers can produce a final exam that contributes to a positive culminating experience to the semester or school year.
And who knows, maybe this can even lead to a new tradition––one that everyone involved understands and embraces.
What type of purpose do you have for your final exam? What obstacles do you face in creating valid assessments? What grading practices do you use on your final? I’d love to hear from you.
Dr. Joshua Kunnath is a high school English teacher and department chair in California. He is the author of multiple education articles on topics of grading reform and literacy. He is also editor of the Journal of School Administration Research and Development. Follow him on Twitter @JoshKunnath or visit his website at JoshKunnath.com.