top of page

Unlike our AP reading quizzes, the 50-question final exam is not interpretive by nature.  Instead, the final exam is an objective, fact-based assessment that evaluates how closely students have read the text and paid attention in class.  The final exam is divided into the following five categories:  

1.  Characters

2.  Settings

3.  Metaphors/Symbols/Allusions

4.  Comprehension

5.  Quotations

Similar to our vocabulary quizzes, we employ a matching format to keep the exam on a single page (double-sided) and enable the use of a Scantron machine for quick, efficient grading.  If students use the blue side of a 50-question Scantron answer sheet for the vocabulary quiz, they can use the green side for the final exam.  Below is the final exam (with a corresponding Scantron answer sheet) that we use for Kaye Gibbons' Ellen Foster:

Ellen Foster Scantron I.jpg

If your school uses a Learning Management System (LMS) like Canvas, you can also create a computerized version of the exam, which will be discussed at the end of this page.  In the meantime, we will look at each section individually to explain the criteria and rationale for the information being assessed on exam questions.

I.  Characters

To help students prepare for the character section of the final exam, we provide a character map at the beginning of the unit to identify which characters will be on the exam and introduce the nature of the relationships between those characters.

When reading a text, students are expected to keep track of the different characters and the role each plays in advancing the plot or conveying the theme.  In the character section of the final exam, we provide a statement that focuses on a key action, thought, description, or line of dialogue.  The goal is not to trick students with irrelevant minutiae about the characters; instead, we want to assess how closely they have read the text and understand the significance of each character's role, no matter how small, in achieving the author's purpose.  

For instance, in Ellen Foster, the role of the undertaker at Ellen's mother's funeral plays a small but significant role in revealing how Ellen views adults in her life.  The undertaker is kind and considerate to Ellen, but she questions the sincerity of his feelings, which reveals her distrust of the people around her.  The statement for the undertaker on the final exam reflects Ellen's cynicism:  

Ellen is “glad he cares [but] would like him better if he said it is my job to care.”

Similarly, Aunt Nadine is a minor character in the novel, but she plays a pivotal role in Ellen's life.  After Ellen's mother dies, she goes to live with Aunt Nadine and her daughter, Dora.  It quickly becomes evident that Aunt Nadine does not want Ellen living with them.  For Christmas, Aunt Nadine showers her daughter with lavish gifts but only gives Ellen a pack of white paper, which admittedly is all Ellen has asked for.  The reader knows that Ellen does not want to be a burden or appear ungrateful for her aunt's hospitality, but the fact that Aunt Nadine decides to "play it safe" and only give her what she asks for shows her lack of generosity and disregard for Ellen's feelings.  The character statement for Aunt Nadine reflects this insensitive action: 

She decides to “play it safe” and gives Ellen “a pack of white paper” for Christmas.

The goal of the character section is to provide key identifying information that can only be associated with a single character.  To understand the significance of the role Aunt Nadine plays in the story is to understand how she treats Ellen in comparison to her own daughter.  The gift exchange at Christmas lets Ellen know that she will never be able to count on Aunt Nadine for the love and support that she desperately craves.

II.  Settings

We do not provide students with a list of settings where important events occur, but we encourage students to annotate their texts and keep track of key locations as they read.  Before the final exam, students work in groups to create a list of settings, and then we go over them as a class and discuss the significant events that occur in each location.  For instance, in Gibbon's novel, students should know that Ellen's "mama's mama" despises Ellen's father and blames him for her daughter's death.  The only time we see them confronting each other is during Ellen's mother's funeral at the church, which should make identifying the following location fairly obvious:

Ellen’s mama’s mama “gets hoarse” calling Ellen’s daddy “a bastard” and “trash.”

Similarly, when a teacher is concerned that Ellen has been physically abused by her father, the teacher refers Ellen to school officials who contact the authorities to have her removed from her father's house.  When Ellen's father drives onto the front lawn of the school and yells for Ellen to come out and see him, students should recognize Ellen's somewhat comical response to solving the problem that her father poses:

Ellen says she could “make [her daddy] stop” if someone just gave her “a pistol.”

It is important to note that settings do not necessarily have to be associated with the present action in the story.  They could also refer to places the characters have been before the story begins or places they are hoping to go after the story ends.   Ultimately, the settings that are selected for the exam should be important to the plot or significant in the development of the characters or theme. 

III.  Metaphors/Symbols/Allusions

In the third section of the exam, students are asked to identify figurative language used to describe characters or represent their thoughts, feelings, and actions.   Most descriptions on the exam will have been discussed in class or shown up on reading quizzes or previous assignments, but when students read independently, they should always be aware of how authors or playwrights use figurative language to describe characters.  For instance, when Ellen's mama commits suicide early in the novel, students should know that it was from taking an overdose of sleeping pills.  They should also know that Ellen wishes that her mother had been strong enough to withstand the physical and psychological abuse of her husband.  The combination of these two factors should enable students to identify Ellen's mother as the character best associated with the following description:

an empty bottle of pills and skin that was too tired of holding in her weak self

Even though Ellen's mother never has the strength or courage to confront Ellen's father, we have no such concerns about Ellen. Despite her toughness and willingness to do whatever is necessary to take care of herself, we also recognize a core sadness in Ellen because of the painful circumstances of her life.  As a result, the painting that Ellen creates is more than just a work of art; it is a symbolic rendering of the person she is at this point in her life:

a painting of a brooding ocean that is strong and beautiful and sad at the same time

Students will have ample opportunity to interpret symbols like Ellen's painting in their essays, activities, and assignments during the rest of the unit, but their task on the final exam is simply to identify which characters are best associated with the metaphors, symbols, or allusions used to describe them.  Nonetheless, the figurative language selected for the exam should reveal the essential nature of the characters and their significance in conveying to the overall theme of the work.

IV.  Comprehension

The true-false comprehension section covers information in the final third of the work that was not previously assessed on the AP reading quizzes.  When students try to determine whether a statement is true or false, we advise them to look at every element in the statement carefully.  If each individual element is true, then the overall statement is true.  If two elements are true, but one is false, then the entire statement is false.  For instance, when Starletta visits Ellen at her new mama's house, the reader understands that Ellen feels guilty about how she previously treated Starletta because of her race.  While Ellen's intent is to show Starletta that she genuinely cares about her, she never comes out and explicitly apologizes to Starletta for her racism, nor does Starletta explicitly forgive Ellen for how she was treated.  As a result, the following statement is false:

When Starletta visits Ellen in her new home, she tells Ellen that she forgives her for having been a racist.

Even though the actions of both characters convey this unspoken understanding, the statement is still false because Starletta never "tells" Ellen that she forgives her.  Gibbons also suggests throughout the novel that Ellen and Starletta are too young to understand the significance of their thoughts or actions.  We know that Ellen eventually rejects the racist culture in which she is raised, but she is too youngor perhaps too ashamedto admit that she had been "racist" in her previous treatment of Starletta.  What we do know, however, is that they have learned to appreciate the friendship that they have formed despite the culture that has discouraged it.

V.  Quotations

The final section of the exam assesses a student's ability to match key lines of dialogue with the character who speaks those words.  For major characters, there might be a number of important quotations from which to choose, but we try to select dialogue that reflects significant character development or contains obvious thematic relevance.  For instance, we see Ellen's maturation most prominently at the end of the novel when she acknowledges her past mistreatment of Starletta and wants her to know how much she appreciates and values their relationship, which is reflected in the following words she speaks to her friend:

“And when I thought about you I always felt glad for myself.  And now I don’t know why.  I really don’t.  And I just wanted to tell you that.  You don’t have to say anything back.”

In contrast, minor characters might have only one significant piece of dialogue in the entire story.  An example is the school psychologist, who interviews Ellen and reveals one of the most important themes of the novel: 

“You see Ellen sometimes children such as yourself who have experienced such a high degree of trauma tend to have identity problems.  Do you follow me?”

Even though Ellen does not understand what the psychologist means, the reader does.  We know that Ellen's traumatic upbringing will have significant ramifications on the life she leads and the person she becomes.  It is a testament to her character, however, that she has persevered through these hardships and still manages to maintain a positive self-image and a thoughtful, compassionate attitude towards others.

Addendum:  Online Exams

As stated above, if your school uses a Learning Management System (LMS) such as Canvas, you can create computerized exams that are automatically graded when students complete them.  For online exams, it might be beneficial to change the matching format to multiple-choice to simulate questions students might find on a standardized test.  For instance, a question from the quotation section could be formatted like the following:

Which character says . . . 

“You see Ellen sometimes children such as yourself who have experienced such a high degree of trauma tend to have identity problems.  Do you follow me?”

(a)  Julia

(b)  Mavis

(c)  Aunt Betsy

(d)  Psychologist

(e)  New Mama

Regardless of format, the final exam is an effective way to assess how closely students have read the text and paid attention in class.  Since it is not meant to be interpretive, the final exam should just be one element in a wide array of activities, assignments, and assessments that give students ample opportunity to think critically and demonstrate their understanding of the text.

We aspire to be an active, engaged professional development community.  Please submit your questions, comments, or suggestions to join the conversation!

bottom of page