Are you feeling the pressure of state tests? With Race to the Top and looming state testing season, many of us are feeling anxious. At this point in the year, my goal is to help my 6th grade students transfer the skills they learned throughout the year to the state tests. This week's post includes resources and strategies for teaching the extended response, or essay portion, of the assessments.
Are you feeling the pressure of state tests? With Race to the Top and looming state testing season, many of us are feeling anxious. At this point in the year, my goal is to help my 6th grade students transfer the skills they learned throughout the year to the state tests. This week's post includes resources and strategies for teaching the extended response, or essay portion, of the assessments. Included is a SMART Notebook lesson for outlining the essay and serving a little TEA to reduce anxiety.
My students take the state exams the first week May. About five weeks before the test, we take a grade-level practice test in the actual testing environment to alleviate confusion and stress on the test day. Students go to their assigned rooms with the teacher who will administer the test. It is a test drive for the entire school, and it helps us to iron out wrinkles resulting from the complex scheduling. After grading the practice test, the reading teacher, Mrs. Dawn Sweredoski, and I identify areas of strength and weakness. We go over the test with the students, so they understand what they are doing right and what we need to work on. We target any gaps during review classes.
For all intents and purposes an extended response is an essay. In fact, the two terms have been used interchangeably on the New York State English Language Arts Assessments. However, with the lengthy tasks and time constraints, students do not have time to be as thorough as they would be on a formal essay.
This year, the New York State Education Department (NYSED) revised our tests. Book 2: Listening and Writing and Book 3: Reading and Writing are now combined. After I finish reading the listening passage, my 6th grade students have 90 minutes to:
I like to shift my lessons every ten minutes to keep my young students' attention. Throughout the year, we have written multiple paragraphs and two essays; therefore, we simply transfer those writing skills to the extended response. Download the SMART Notebook extended response lesson pictured above to guide your students in outlining an extended response.
This year, inspired by Teaching Writing Through Differentiated Instruction With Leveled Graphic Organizers by Nancy L. Witherell and Mary C. McMackin, I leveled the graphic organizers. The hamburger graphic organizer is an option for my students who get state testing modifications. They are familiar with the hamburger graphic organizer, an outlining tool used in elementary school. The familiarity provides a comfort zone for them, inspiring confidence. Originally, the hamburger graphic organizer was used for writing paragraphs. I expanded upon it, creating a double cheeseburger essay graphic organizer. Each beef patty represents a body paragraph. They are required to use two details from each article to support their topic sentences. Although the graphic organizer is modified, it still engages the students in all levels of thinking, and they must complete all the tasks.
My mentor teacher, Mrs. Marion McAuliffe, gave me the advanced graphic organizer during my student teaching. Over the years, I have modified it to meet the needs of my students. The SMART Notebook version is color-coded to connect to the traffic light colors: green (start), yellow (proceed with caution), and red (stop). The green triangle, representing the introductory paragraph, is green because the color green indicates “go.” The point of the inverted triangle reminds students to insert the thesis, the essay's point, at the end of the introductory paragraph. The yellow rectangles remind them to slow down and identify specific details and commentary to support those details. Students write the topic of the sentence on top of each rectangle. My 6th graders are required to incorporate a minimum of three specific details from each source in each body paragraph. The upright triangle, the concluding paragraph, is a reminder to restate the thesis, the point of the essay, and close with a broader insightful comment. The visuals help my students remember the task at hand.
Last year, I came up with the acronym TEA to help my students compose an introductory paragraph. “T” reminds them to introduce the TITLES of the passages and if possible the authors. “E” stands for ECHO, which means to restate the essay prompt or question. “A” means ANSWER any questions, if it is required. I clarify that the prompt does not always ask a question. However, the "A" in TEA serves as a reminder to look for a question and respond if there is one, ensuring that they do not overlook any required tasks.
In the New York State exams, my students are required to pull details from two passages. The tasks vary. Sometimes students are supposed to compare and contrast. Other times, they have to defend an opinion. Throughout the year, I have taught my students organizational patterns. The essay prompt determines the organizational pattern. For example, after reading about two lifestyles, my students had to choose which lifestyle they preferred and explain why. It is important that the students determine which pattern of organization will help them to accomplish this task in a logical manner. In this circumstance, it is logical to organize the essay according to the advantages and disadvantages of the lifestyles. This ensures that they utilize details from both passages. Below are some of the common organizational patterns used on past state assessments:
During test review, we analyze essay prompts and discuss how we could organize the body paragraphs. We don’t necessarily have to read all the articles. We survey the articles and evaluate the prompts, applying previously learned skills to test taking.
Developing thorough body paragraphs has been a challenge for my students. Often, in their quest to complete the test on time, they compose general statements. We define specific details as those that we can actually put our finger on in the article. Often I get a paragraph that consists of a list of details, and in order to score a 5, the highest level on the state rubric, they need to demonstrate insight. We accomplish this by creating an alternating pattern of specific details and insightful comments. The comments explain how the specific details connect to the prompt. We refer to this as "chitchat" or "talking it out." We highlight specific details yellow and chitchat green. The alternating detail and commentary pattern is based on the Jane Schaffer writing method, which our high school English teachers implement. At the high school level, students must back up each detail with at least two comments. My students have a 1:1 ratio of details to commentary.
The upright triangle reminds students to echo the question, the thesis, or point of the essay again and make an insightful comment. It is not a thorough conclusion, but we will not have time for the more developed response that would be required for an essay. I would rather they used the time to focus on developing the body paragraphs. If you are interested, I have outlined the new New York State exam requirements and provided test-taking tips for students and parents on the New York State ELA Test part of my Web site. Test taking resources for students are located on the pages Book 1: Reading and Multiple Choice, Book 2: Listening, Mechanics, and Writing, and Book 2: Reading and Writing. More general resources include the Scholastic articles "Teacher to Teacher Advice on Standardized Testing," "Standardized Test Preparation," and "8-Step Game Plan for Standardized Test Prep."
Undoubtedly, we are all concerned about the state test. If you have test taking strategies that help your students to succeed, please feel free to share them below. Good luck on your state tests.