If you are going to bother doing something, do it well and make it worth your time. I take that mantra and apply it to almost everything in my classroom, and preparing for standardized tests is no different. Whether you love or hate the nature of high-stakes testing, it is a necessary evil until a better way to ensure equal evaluation of students comes along. Here is how my class attacks the tests head-on and how I ensure high levels of learning in the process.
Currently, states have different assessments and information available depending on where you live, but we are moving towards common assessments with the implementation of Common Core. No matter your assessment, there is a blueprint somewhere. Know exactly how long each test is, what the sections are, and how they are to be administered. Can your students use calculators on any one part? Blueprints, sometimes called “specs” or “specifications,” tell you exactly what skills will be tested and how many points each question is worth. They may include important details, like which questions require open-ended responses and what will not be included as well. Find your blueprint and know it inside and out. Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium offers potential blueprints for common assessments, and more definite blueprints will surface as Common Core assessments are created.
Find sample tests and dissect them. Many times questions are asked in a very prescribed format. We take the sample books, examples from presentations, and any other test-prep material we can find and pull the question stems. Question stems are going to be the format you want to ask all your practice questions in. For example, I know that my students will be asked about author’s purpose. The question stem might say, “Why did the author most likely write this passage?” Knowing how the question will be asked allows me to create similar questions for my students. If the test is going to use italics instead of bold words, then so am I. If the test says “provide evidence,” then I’m not going to say “give examples.” I’m going to say exactly what the test does. Here is one example of the question stems I use in 4th grade English language arts.
Assessments may include open-ended responses. These questions require students to write responses or show their work and reasoning. Again, we check the blueprint and figure out what questions could be asked in an open-ended way. Then, we find question stems that mirror those on sample tests. While we are learning throughout the year, we adapt test questions to this format so that students are used to writing their responses. We get out the rubrics and show students how to grade open-ended questions, so they know exactly what will be required. As we get closer to test time, students participate in a guided response before tackling a similar question on their own daily. Yes, I said daily.
Both reading and math open-ended questions are practiced each day throughout much of the year, so they are commonplace and students are ready to respond. I try to make it as easy as possible. For math, I took the sample questions and created four or five of each question, just changing the figures. Copied into binders, these sets can be used over and over without making excess copies! Critical Literacy: Enhancing Students’ Comprehension of Text is a great resource for developing great open-ended questions.
Once you know the number and type of each kind of question, and you have the wording down, you are ready to assemble your test. Make your test as much like the real format as possible. If your blueprint says that there are seven questions about double-digit multiplication and you know the different ways the question might be asked, then your assessment should also have seven questions asked in the same way. I have test “blanks” that I use. Our math and reading tests are given in the same format, with numbers going down the columns and each question in a box. I retype all my tests into this format so that it is familiar to the students.
Going back to the blueprint can also give clues about the answer document. We run sample documents provided by the state. If a response must be gridded, we get the exact grid. If answers are on lined paper, we use the same paper the test will have.
My school has what we call “shutdowns.” A shutdown is basically a practice run for the real test. The test will start in the morning and run for a specific length of time. During that time, there is no movement in the hallways and all classes are testing the entire time. We prepare our assessments and documents ahead of time and proctor the test in the same way as will happen with the real test. My grade usually does reading one day and math the next, but that varies by grade level with some classes testing both subjects in one span. We start with short one or one-and-a-half hour tests every month or so early in the school year. As we move through the year, the frequency and time increase. By this point in the year, we are testing every eight days for up to two hours.
We don’t simply take tests and that’s that. After an assessment, my class reviews the test. How we review depends on the subject, and I try to change it up to keep everyone’s attention. I might run diagnostics, only spending focused time reviewing the questions we struggled with. I sometimes have students grade each other’s papers, but other times I grade them all and pull small groups to review specific skills. Fellow blogger Alycia has some great ways to keep up engagement during test prep. I reward for improvement and for focus during the test time, more than for final grades. The point? Students know how to answer next time and we hone in on skills that are weak with immediate feedback.
The work is never done when preparing for these types of assessment tests. Throughout the year, we are conscious of how we teach and assess our students. When results come in, we spend data meetings highlighting students that fell below desired levels and figure out what skills to work on throughout the year. We take grade-level results and locate weak areas, making specific lesson plans to address those needs. If we only got two out of three points on an open-ended question, we figure out what type of question it might have been and formulate practices to help raise the score.
Is it all about the test? No. As good teachers, we are always looking for ways to move our students forward in all areas, not just on one test. The difference I see in “teaching to the test” and being well prepared is that my students have no surprises in format; they have experience with the types of questions they will be asked; and they have practice responding in writing so that others can read and understand their work. I know that they are better prepared because of the work I do behind the scenes to make sure everything we do has purpose and is written with intention.
How do you prepare for the tests? What resources do you use when making assessments? Do practice tests serve a purpose in your classroom?