How effective are end of unit exams?

While reflecting on assessment I want to look at an “assessment genre” that is very commonly used in the UK, where I am teaching now, and is now going to be a large part of my professional practice, this genre is the end of unit exam.  This is used in many different subjects in the UK as it is helpful for students to prepare for GCSEs and allows teachers to evaluate strengths and weaknesses of students.

So, what is an end of unit exam, well it is exactly as you would imagine based on the vocabulary.  It is an exam that covers all of the learning objectives, and learning outcomes desired by any given unit within a class.  This is structured and marked in the same way that a GCSE or A-Level exam would be marked.  I understand some people may be reading this from the US and confused on some of this terminology, so let me briefly explain.  A GCSE is the exam that all students in the UK take after they finish year 11 (10th Grade equivalent) that covers everything they have studied in any given subject to that point.

A unit exam is most frequently used as an assessment of learning, showing the student and the teacher what content is known, and to what level (graded on a scale of 1 to 9 currently).  It is used, because it is an accurate and comparative way to judge where a student would score in this specific unit on their future GCSE exam, to show areas of strength and weakness for further revision (review and study).  Some teachers use this simply as an assessment of learning, but it could also be used as a formative assessment tool, by exploring specific areas of weakness and providing follow on instruction or assignments to strengthen or cover any areas of weakness.    Typically, these scores are added to a report or a sheet for each student to keep, to reflect on or show what they achieved on and to compare to other units.

If I look at an end of unit exam, in a traditional sense, in relation to my previously created Formative Assessment Design Checklist I can see some areas of success or high value, as well as areas of weakness. The first question I will apply to this form of assessment is “How will this assessment inform instruction/curriculum/teaching?”.  The answer to this will obviously vary from situation to situation, but in the most traditional sense the way it informs these aspects is predominantly “pre-assessment” impact where in teachers tailor their class to fit what will be on the end of unit exam, like Wiggins and McTighe (2005) speak about the classroom has been tailored to the end result, which is often the culminating experience of this exam.  Often time the results of this exam lead to no change in the teaching going forward for this class (often it will be changed for the next group coming through based on the results), and therefore the assessment is summative and not formative.  Some teachers, however, I have seen use this to impact their instruction by following up with a review of some sort for students to cover the areas that were missed or shown to be areas of weakness.  Overall, I consider both the pre-assessment and post-assessment impact on instruction to be a weakness of this form of assessment as it too often results in a teacher “teaching to the test” and little potential for post assessment learning exists.

On the second question of my question I ask, “What level of knowledge does this assessment measure?” and this varies greatly and is hard to actually measure.  Some common trends, though, are to measure a lower level of knowledge such as list, understand, explain, or even apply knowledge, but this is highly varied from test to test, and teacher to teacher.

The third question is “Is this intended as an assessment OF learning, assessment FOR learning, or assessment AS learning?” and the unfortunate answer for this question, most often, is it is used solely as an assessment OF learning.  Now there is great debate between whether assessment of learning should happen in the classroom, and it obviously has value to measure what a student knows, but I believe that all people are constantly learning and growing and therefore an assessment that may even be used as an assessment of learning should still be used for learning and I believe this opportunity is missed commonly.  Usually this assessment is treated as the transition between one topic to another with little reflection or review back.

Another question I would use is “How will this assessment highlight different individual’s knowledge?”, and this is another common weakness of the end of unit exam as it is a one size.  Despite the availability of technology which could enable differentiation in exams, very little differentiation and individualization happens in end of unit exams, meaning the efficacy of it is reduced.

The last question I would use to assess this is “Does this assessment allow appropriate reflection by students and educators” and this depends on your interpretation of appropriate reflection.  Often times these exams are given to students to allow for reflection on and therefore has some potential for knowledge growth, and often times teachers will reflect on the results, overall trends, etc. and therefore change their future teaching, and give grades, but rarely do they use these reflections for learning of the current group.

Many of the previously mentioned issues could be addressed by the restructuring and rethinking of the end of unit exam.  This would take work, and practice, but would greatly increase the efficacy it has on learning.   I envision an end of unit exam that, rather than is used as a grading opportunity and a transitionary tool, is used to measure student’s knowledge, in an individualized highly specific manner, and then provides clear follow on directions for methods and needs for mastery.  To look at this in an example you can provide an exam that measures learning by altering questions based on previous answers from students to find out exactly what content is known and isn’t known, and then provides a report for the student and teacher on the learner’s knowledge profile.  This is then used to provide future lessons, exercises, and revision areas for the learner to explore to master the content.

This assessment has many applications to a digital design, where as some are simple and easily achieved, and some are more complex.  Simple ways to incorporate this into a technology education system is simply to create assessments that are digital, this allows some great additions that could be added, to give increased understanding of a student’s true understanding of content.  Creating a method of analyzing answers immediately digitally saves marking and feedback time, but also could allow for alternate tests, where if a student gets a question wrong or spends a lot of time on a question (possibly selecting multiple answers before finally selecting an answer) the next question probes more into the same area of content to further evaluate what content a student truly knows (or doesn’t).  Conversely, if a student gets a question correct, and is showing proficiency in an area you could supply them with more challenging questions to assess how fully they comprehend the content and can use that knowledge.  This would leave you with a far more complex and in depth understanding of a student’s knowledge of the subject matter, and specific areas or ways each student could improve their knowledge.  Another method you could use technology to advance this genre is using the results of the assessment and integrating spiraled content from areas of weakness in future units, either directly as a review or secondary.  Examples of this would be providing periodic review lessons and exercises or using areas where content knowledge was weaker and incorporating that content into future lessons (weak content knowledge of fractions is followed by incorporating fraction work into future equation work), and continually monitoring how they handle this “representation” of knowledge.

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