Recently, Henry Redbird sat down with Mr. Brown to ask him about semester exams in high schools. Lately, students and teachers have been wondering why have exams at all. In the wake of this wondering, I asked Mr. Brown for his thoughts on the subject.
How long do students spend writing an exam, and how long do you spend reading them?
Most students write the exam in two hours. Those approved for extended time take either three or four hours, depending on their individual accommodation. For my part, I typically need twenty-five to thirty hours to read the tests thoughtfully. I take breaks every few hours, so that I stay fresh and attentive to the nuances of individuals’ performances.
What do you look for in a student’s exam results?
As happens during the semester, a rubric governs my assessment. The basic rubric expects students to organize and express their ideas clearly, to develop those ideas beyond an initial statement, and to provide compelling evidence from the literary texts. I use these same criteria for the exam. To help students grow towards greater mastery of content and skills, I usually publish model responses from their classmates, after the exam period. People who review these models can see where to strengthen their performance on the next exam. Rather than showing each student where he or she went wrong with a particular question, an impractical idea given the time I already spend reading exams, I prefer this model-method for the type of exams they take in this course. With this approach, students can make the comparisons themselves.
What did you learn from this most recent set of exams?
Here I need to differentiate between the senior and sophomore tests. In the case of the seniors, I learned several valuable lessons. First is that the test produced a spectrum of results, which I take as a healthy sign. Some students rose to the challenge of the questions by carefully expressing original insights. At the other end, some students had trouble creating coherent responses. For most of the students in between, the questions pushed them to consider familiar material in new ways. The senior exam had three sections: poetry, reflections on our Nobel profile project and an essay comparing Beowulf to elements in current or historical events. The poetry section was fairly straightforward, testing students’ working knowledge of basic poetic terms like metaphor, imagery and alliteration. In applying such terms to their analysis of an unfamiliar poem, they showed a significant range of competence. The Nobel section interested me most, both before and after I read the responses. This section, just like the Nobel project itself, was a new project. I didn’t know what to expect, but student reflections from the exam demonstrated that many students waded through the project’s early stages, but over time came to appreciate the commitment of their chosen scientist and their own work in revising the profile over and over. It was fun and gratifying to see the care students took in writing these exam reflections. In the last section, students rose or fell depending on how well they could sustain an argument with specific references to the text. Beowulf is an old text, and I enjoyed reading the creative ways people could connect elements of that poem to patterns of human behavior they see in other moments of human history, including today’s world.
As for the sophomores, they also had three sections: poetry, short stories and comparative essay. I enjoyed reading all three of these sections for different reasons. What I learned most was the skill with which the sophomores analyzed a short story they had only seen once briefly before the exam. I was very impressed with the care and insight everyone brought to that writing. I knew they would do well in this section, but I didn’t expect such vigorous success across the board. The poetry section involved some original composition, and I learned who was most able to produce original lines on short notice. I also learned, once again, how central one’s understanding of metaphor is to the study and writing of poetry. People who struggled with those questions, struggled elsewhere in the poetry section. Lastly, the essay asked them to compare two unlikely partner pieces: Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and Hosseini’s The Kite Runner. These essays showed me a number of connections I had not considered. Again, as in other parts of this test and the senior exam, students who had a basketful of details to pull from ended up producing the more engaging arguments.
In short, the exam results taught me new ways of thinking about the literature we have read together. It also confirmed aspects of most students’ semester performances, while bringing to my attention the tenuous grasp other students have on elements of our studies. These later lessons will help me sharpen not only future assignments, but also my attention to the assessment of those exercises. When I read a set of exams, I would like fewer surprises, especially negative ones.
What, if anything, do you plan to do differently in the next set of semester tests?
I am not sure. I don’t imagine huge changes in my approach because this most recent set taught me what I was hoping it would. During the several weeks leading up to the exam, I kept re-calibrating the questions based on what students were showing about their levels of understanding. I like the way the questions eventually fit their readiness. I like to challenge students just the right amount. Call it the Goldilocks effect. Next time, I will use the same process but with different material and a group of students who have grown beyond their current capabilities.
In your experience over the years, how much do semester exams contribute to the overall learning process?
I am not sure what they teach students. I’d like to understand that part of the equation better. Exams do teach me something, however–something significant each time. For example, in the case of sophomores, this past set has revealed weak spots in some students’ understanding that had not registered with me before the exams. That’s a weak spot of mine. With this knowledge, as I said earlier, I can sharpen our course activities to build understanding more completely across all students. I know that over the years my work with students has become more productive because of what I have learned from exams.
Thank you for your time, Mr. Brown.
Thank you, Mr. Redbird, for bearing with my long-winded answers. I think about such things quite a bit, and I don’t always know when to stop. Now looks like a good time.