The Best Test Prep

It's spring. The trees are greening, we're having more warm days than not, and Spring Break is right around the corner. All of this means it's that time of the school year.

The Test is coming.

To begin - and to be perfectly transparent - the purpose of this post isn't to debate whether or not we should administer standardized tests, argue about the heavy accountability they carry, or rail against the system of assessments in general. No matter how we feel about them, they are here, they have a purpose, they are a reality, and they carry weight. 

Instead, the purpose of this post is to talk about what we should - and shouldn't - do when we begin to feel the testing crunch that comes around every spring.

Here's what often happens. Right around Spring Break, text-centered lesson preparation talk turns to "comprehension skills" we think kids are lacking, the Test-like writing prompts they need to learn to unpack, and how much time there is before The Test to have kids practice taking The Test with passages that come from ... you guessed it. The Test. Usually, you can cut the stress and tension with a knife.

And I get it. As a third grade teacher myself, I've done these things, and they're an understandable reaction to the anxiety we can feel related to The Test. There is a lot of accountability tied to it, and we all want our students (and, if we're being honest, our teachers and schools) to do well on it.

But I am here to tell you this. 

Reacting to The Test with lots of test preparation activities will not help students do well on it. It hasn't in the past, and there is no evidence to support the idea that it will now. 

After all, as a nation, we have had about 1/3 of our students reading at proficient levels since at least 1992, and we have done a LOT of test prep since then. 

Now, I'm not saying that students shouldn't have some familiarity with the format of standardized tests or the types of questions and tasks they encounter on them. The purpose of an assessment isn't for our students to do well; it's for us to see how well they can do. And I don't want the format of a test or question to be a barrier to students performing as well as they can so that we can make good decisions based on what we see. That's why, in our district at least, we give students occasional practice with cold-read passages throughout the year, using items released by the Tennessee Department of Education. 

But I am saying that stopping regular instruction with the curriculum after Spring Break to test prep, or spending large amounts of time during the school year using The Test passages or instruction targeted to specific skills or strategies, will not help our students. In fact, it can actually harm their ability to learn at levels that will help them do well, because each time we make a decision about how to spend our time, we are choosing what we will do and what we will not do. If we choose to spend our time doing lots of Test-related activities that don't work, that means we're choosing not to provide the kind of instruction that research shows actually makes a difference for kids.

So, what is the best test prep? As usual, I'll turn to Tim Shanahan, and here's what he suggests.

1. Have students read extensively within instruction across the school year. These tests measure reading ability, and you are not likely to develop reading ability without letting students read. A lot. I'm talking time in text, miles on the road type of reading.

2. Have students read increasing amounts of text without guidance or support. Independence is our goal, always.

3. Make sure that the texts we put in front of kids are rich in content and challenging. Lots of reading of easy texts won't prepare students for navigating difficult texts on their own.

4. Have students explain their answers and provide text evidence supporting their claims. They need to engage with the type of thinking that moves past simply picking evidence and to reasoning about why they chose it, how it supports their ideas and thinking, and whether they could choose something better.

5. Engage students in regularly writing about text, not just in replying to multiple-choice questions. Want to give student a chance to process their own learning AND see visible evidence of what each and every student is thinking and what misconceptions they've got, so you can make adjustments accordingly? Let them write. A lot.

If all of this sounds familiar, it should. It's the type of instruction that happens every day when we use our curricular materials really well. And when we do this - when every single day, every single student gets their hands and heads in complex texts and does increasingly sophisticated work and thinking with them - then The Test will NOT be the hardest thing they've done all year. The daily work they've done under your guidance will be the most rigorous thinking they've done, and The Test will seem simpler by comparison.

There are lots of reasons why what we typically do to prep for The Test doesn't work, and why we should instead choose to continue to give all kids access to very complex texts, challenging work, and strong instruction every single day of the school year. I encourage you to read through the articles and resources cited below to learn more about them. They are research-based and have stood the test of time. 

But in the end, really, it comes down to you. 

You have the power to control how you choose to spend your precious time at this point of the year and put The Test in its place. You can choose to react to The Test with stress and anxiety and a narrowed focus on what we've typically done - even though it hasn't moved the needle for our students. Or you can choose to respond with trust and confidence that the work you've done all year - and that you continue to do until the very last day - is preparing your students to do well on whatever task is put in front of them. Then, the Test will be just a matter of course.

As Tim writes, "If you want your students to perform at their best ... you will accomplish that not by having students practice items ... but by teaching students to read."

Want to learn more? Here's what I recommend:

Here's to simply teaching well,

No comments

Post a Comment