State Assessments: Note-Taking & Writing Strategies
- Grades: 3–5, 6–8
Last week, I received an email from a good friend who shared test-taking tips that she is using in her classroom. The other day, a 6th grader in an unidentified U.S. location wrote, thanking me profusely for the test-taking tips that I had posted on my Web site. She wanted me to know that she is “less nervous to take the exam.” The next email was from a fellow blogger, Renee, who was looking for paired passages to use for state test review. It is evident that teachers and students across the country are in state testing mode. Read on for some of the review strategies I use in my classroom.
Photo copyright Shutterstock/jeka.
I like state tests because they force me to stop and review with my students, teaching them to pull all their skills together for the grand finale. We take all the skills we learned throughout the year and apply them to taking the test. Sometimes it takes a gentle reminder; sometimes I have to reteach a skill. I plan about three weeks to review reading strategies, organizational patterns, and note-taking. Our goal is to apply formerly learned skills to the test format while reinforcing skills and increasing retention for the following year. Before I start, I ask my students to write down their areas of strength and weakness. I also give my students a practice test, which is the first time they actually see the test format. Student input and practice test data are then used to target gaps during test review.
In many of our content areas, we read to our students throughout the year, so preparing them for the listening passage is not a major concern. My students are allowed to select a method of note-taking that best supports their learning style: drawing a plot map, illustrations with call-out balloons, or the Cornell method. Usually, it is the students who struggle with writing or who are visual learners who prefer illustration and map methods. However, I provide notes throughout the year using the Cornell Note-Taking System, so understandably, most of my students prefer this method.
The Cornell method, as illustrated in the image to the right, recommends that students write “cues,” key words or phrases, in the left column and details in the right. Download the instructions for the Cornell Note-Taking System at the Cornell University Study Skills Resources Web page under the subheading “Tips for Reading and Learning From Lecture.” Judith Dodge, in the article "Noting What I've Learned," offers a tiered graphic organizer based on the Cornell method.
My students are allowed to take notes during both readings; however, I suggest that they listen the first time, jotting down the key words. During the second reading, they fill in the blanks in the right column, thereby giving them options.
Analyzing the Essay Prompt
The SMART Notebook video below illustrates how we analyzed a prompt, identified the tasks, and self-evaluated an extended response. Turning the essay prompt into a checklist helps many students be sure they completed all the tasks. We simply draw a line, extending each bullet to create a checklist. We highlight the details from each passage. I modeled how to mark the details from Article 1 using the code A1. Together we label Article 2 details. The students worked independently, evaluating their own responses and labeling the details A1 or A2.
A fabulous colleague from Heuvelton Central School, Ronica Lawrence, shared how she holds her students accountable for completing each task. She has her students label each bulleted task B1, B2, and B3 within the written response to ensure that they address all the tasks. This way, they can’t check off each task without physically identifying it in their writing.
Alternatives to Written Responses
This year, because our spring break falls four days before our state testing, I am going to pair a listening passage with a nonfiction article. This allows us to review two portions of the test at once. Instead of writing out the answers, we bullet or outline the details, saving students from burning out and me from grading overload. My students do not respond to all of these prompts in writing. Alternatively, we analyze prompts and determine how to best approach them. We discuss the number of tasks and bullet the text-based details for the short answer responses. We discuss organizational patterns and outline an essay, debating the best details and the best organizational patterns. From the group discussions and the bulleted or outlined responses, I can determine if they understand how to address all the parts of the questions accurately and with sufficient relevant details. If you want to review this with your students, Somers Central School in Lincolnsdale, NY, has published a Web page with a list of organizational patterns, Words That Signal a Text's Organizational Structure.
Highlighting is a technique we use when writing short answer responses and essays. I instruct my students to include at least two details for each task. For example, in the question to the right, there are two tasks to address, so they need four details. We have to include the freedoms (highlighted in yellow) and responsibilities (highlighted in green) of a young girl who lives on a boat. They labeled the freedoms F1 and F2 and the responsibilities R1 and R2. I can easily confirm that my definition of a text-based detail and their idea of a text-based detail correlate. If they do not, I explain that a text-based, or specific, detail refers to text that I can put my finger on in the article. It is tangible. An idea, on the other hand, comes from your head. Ideas are good because they require higher level thinking. If you cannot put your finger on it, it is considered a great idea. Ultimately, this activity ensures that we are on the same page in defining a text-based detail and that they have ample text details to support their ideas.
When writing the extended response or essay, my 6th graders are required to include a minimum of six specific text details, three details from each passage. In order to ensure they do this, we color-code the details, highlighting the details from each article a different color, building off their prior knowledge of the short answer responses. (If the colors bother them, they can label them A1 or A2, or Article 1 or Article 2.) Color-coding provides a visual reminder when they actually take the test. It also helps them to self-evaluate, by determining if they have ample details to support their ideas. It also helps me to grade more quickly. For more in-depth ideas for teaching the extended response, visit my past post, “State Assessments: Extended Response," where I share essay-writing tips and a SMART Notebook lesson.
Avoiding Grading Overload
When we write out the short answer responses, I cannot possibly keep up with all the grading. A couple years ago, I attended a Mary Ellen Ledbetter conference, and she provided a solution to this problem. When we write out the answers, we take turns reading the responses. Each day five students read their answers aloud. By the end of the week, 25 students are graded. The rest of the week we either bullet or analyze prompts. The effort and quality of writing is improved because it is being read aloud, and grading and feedback is provided immediately.
Mary Ellen also introduced me to interactive rubrics, which theoretically are reverse outlines. For example, on a short answer response or paragraph, I give them a slip of paper, like the form to the right, asking for a topic sentence, three supporting details, and a closing sentence, and they fill it out. This activity forces my 6th graders to engage in self-evaluation and revision, the highest level of thinking. Download the interactive rubric to the right to put the task of evaluation into the hands of your students.
As always, please feel free to share your ideas and strategies.