Tomorrow, for one of my temporary jobs, I will embark on a second 10-day journey evaluating and scoring middle-level standardized reading tests. I wrote about my initial experience and impressions about working as a test evaluator before (“The Week I Spent As A Standardized Test Evaluator”), but I wanted to come back and articulate some more thoughts I had on testing and add a list of suggestions for better test preparation.
Since my first experience as an evaluator back in early spring, I have been reflecting on my teaching methods and asking myself a key question: “What are the students learning?” This question was posed online months ago in an #edchat by Will Chamberlain, and I find myself going back to it over and over again. Most teachers want to go beyond content; they want to actively engage their students, to help foster positive relationships, and provide them with multiple outlets for creativity, innovation, and personal success. With standardized testing, however, the effort to raise scores has led most teachers to spend more and more time on test preparation. Paired with the fear of No Child Left Behind’s (NCLB) tenet of accountability, some teachers resort to simplifying their instruction or sticking with drills.
My experience as a teacher working as a test evaluator has taught me that most students don’t understand why they are doing these drills and why they are taking these tests. Most importantly, most aren’t aware of what they can do to succeed in test settings. Last spring, only 6 out of 2000 students scored a high 4 on standardized science tests that I helped score and evaluate. Their random drawings and scribbles showed me that these students had no confidence in themselves. Many believed they learned nothing in class, that they were on their own, and therefore did not bother to try and answer their test questions.
NCLB has been in effect for several years. There are certainly countless complaints about it, but as my mid-level education graduate professor so aptly put it: “There is no reason to discard the zeal of passionate teaching for rote practice. Creativity does not have to be the antonym of test preparation.” The goal put forth for today’s teachers is to find a way to marry their learning goals with test preparation–there is no reason to sacrifice one or the other. To achieve this goal, first, I believe it starts with a different attitude. As much as teachers don’t like NCLB, it is here and will, undeniably, continue to be around for awhile. It’s “the only game in town”, as my graduate professor liked to say, and teachers not only have to learn how to play it, but also learn how to build winning strategies. Secondly, I believe teachers must work with their students. They must help them build up students’ self-esteem, help students face hard work and tough questions, and to instill in their students a can-do attitude in any situation.
I am grateful for these brief opportunities working as a test evaluator because it gives me a new perspective to work from. It gives me a different understanding of what I need to do as a teacher to best prepare and help my students succeed in and outside the classroom. Based on my observations on student responses I have scored, I have put together a few suggestions that I hope will help me (and other teachers) improve student confidence and learning in the following list:
- Have honest and frequent discussions with students about why they are taking these tests, how to connect it to the classroom and the outside-world, and what they need to do to play the game and fulfill what the state tests are looking for. They need to know that they’re not alone, that they know more than they think they know, and that you are there to help them succeed.
- Re-evaluate what is being taught and how it is being taught in the classroom. Focus on helping students understand, master, and connect the major concepts and key ideas rather than emphasizing fragmented individual facts and numbers. Be creative with instructional strategies and learning activities.
- Tie in concrete real-world examples that students can use with the major concepts and ideas. Use a variety of hands-on and minds-on activities and projects that students can draw generalizations and examples from to help them explain and articulate what they have learned.
- Integrate reading, writing, and math skills with content areas through daily activities (ie. using math strategies in science, writing to communicate results and research, etc) so that students have more opportunities to practice their literacy, comprehension, and problem-solving skills.
- Work with the students on assessing and grading their performance. Break down rubric criteria together and provide students with appropriate examples for clarification. Give multiple opportunities to debate over grading standards and work samples. Allow students to evaluate their peers and themselves by using class-generated rubrics. Practicing this in the classroom will help them understand what the state tests are looking for.
- Model for students how to read, break down, and comprehend directions and test questions. Show students how they can use graphic organizers and reading techniques to decode what they are being asked to do and to make sure they’re doing it. Evaluators use a strict scoring guideline that ticks off a list of things to look for. Students should be aware of that list and make sure they’re hitting them in their test responses.
- Promote a supportive learning environment that celebrates everyday achievement. Let students take a practice test once or twice a month. Go over the answers together and give students time to reflect on how they did. Provide them with opportunities to work together, talk about their individual weaknesses and strengths on tests, and share tips on how to address areas that need improvement. Assign fun weekly open-ended challenges and provide descriptive praise for their efforts. Students need to know that it is better for them to try and give it their best shot than to be penalized by the scoring system for a blank test response.
By working with students to create a can-do attitude towards test preparation in class, teachers can demystify the world of standardized testing for their students. They can also help their students become less intimidated by state tests by addressing frankly what the state test expectations are. By taking some of these steps, teachers can help their students become more confident about what they know and about their test-taking abilities. Even though standardized testing is the only high stakes game in town, teachers and students must not let that stop them. They need to know that they have the knowledge and the tools to play… and that mastering the game is one of the sure ways to change it for the better in the future.