My journey in the land of state testing…
Ahhh state testing. It is upon us. Actually for some it has been on our minds since returning from winter break. I have had a love hate….okay who are we kidding a mostly hate relationship with state testing. Mostly because it used to eclipse everything I did and hang as a puffy cloud over my head all year long. So much so that when the opportunity came to leave a testing grade and go to a primary grade I ran as fast as I could just to avoid the dreaded state test.
That actually proved to be the best decision ever for my teaching career as a whole because it allowed me to live in this alternate universe where I could just teach in order to prepare my students for the next grade level and not for the sake of how students would perform on the state test. It allowed me to take risks like not using the basal as the central focus of my teaching, and try different ways of teaching all without worrying if I should be spending instructional time preparing students for the state test.
I mention all of this because I know what a luxury it was to have four years away from the constant pressure of wondering if you are doing the right thing by giving students time to read independently instead of giving them another reading passage to “practice” on. My experience in a non testing grade gave me a chance to teach using best teaching practices and see the impact that these practices had on my students and their reading progress all without the pressure of the state test looming over me.
This set the stage for me to develop a philosophy about reading instruction and what kind of teacher that I wanted to be. It framed how I approached teaching and preparing students for the state assessment each year.
How it started
When I taught third grade the conventional wisdom said that I should be giving my students a passage of text a week in order to help my students build stamina and prepare them for the state assessment all year long. My students and I did not like this approach.
I didn’t like it because it took out an entire day of instruction. My students didn’t like it because…well who likes reading passages anyway? Yet, I was too scared to trust that I knew what I was doing or that I knew what my students needed most. So I complied, but gave passages every other week.
I also succumbed to the conventional wisdom that students needed me to teach them strategies for test taking and that I needed to ensure that students used these strategies whether they needed them or not. That was until I had a student who would literally cry about using these so called strategies.This was a student who was reading Harry Potter in the 3rd grade and I was “worried” she wouldn’t be able to pass a practice test passage…insert eye roll at myself. I told her that if she got a 90 or better that she wouldn’t have to use them anymore. She did and I didn’t make her use them anymore…I did still have the other students use them though.
When my class wasn’t taking practice reading passages, the rest of our time was focused on actual reading instruction, and the best practices that surround it like giving students time to read independently and working with students in guided reading. I also had students focus on book talk projects in order to expose students to a variety of genres . This was a year long approach to “test prep” that ensured students were reading a variety of text.
The end result was that my students did well on their state test, but more importantly they had grown as readers without me inundating them with test practice all year long.
As I mentioned before I did have the chance to teach second grade for four years and had the luxury of not worrying about state testing during that time. I got to see what worked and what didn’t and developed my own philosophies for teaching reading. These new philosophies included the belief that giving students time to read each day was the best way for them to build reading stamina. I also developed the philosophy that in order for students to be able to do something on paper i.e. a passage they first had to be able to practice it orally i.e. in turn and talk opportunities.
These new philosophies came with me when I transitioned to teaching fifth grade and the focus on state testing returned. This time I held true to my philosophies and did not cave to the pressure to test prep using the traditional methods of giving students reading passages every week. I focused on best teaching practices and made sure that each day, students participated in read aloud with accountable talk, genre study, guided reading, and monthly book talk projects.
When we were about a month away from the state test the focus shifted, but I tried to make sure that I continued to incorporate all the best teaching practices that had been helping student’s grow as readers. Although it is true that students need to be prepared for taking their state assessment each year it is not true that we have to abandon what we know about kids or what we know about teaching to do this. We can actually incorporate what we know about kids and what we know about best teaching practices into our test prep.
Follow the Data
In previous posts I talked about how data can inform instruction in your classroom. That same data can be used to guide your Test prep practices.
One way to get your data is to take an airplane view at your formative and summative assessments from the year and see what your students need most as a group and individually.
Use that information to plan what your whole group and small group instruction will look like during test prep season. You could also use your district benchmark data to collect this information.
For example, each year our district gave a comprehensive benchmark where students were assessed using released tests from our state assessment tool. This ensured that students were being assessed across a variety of genres. This data revealed that as a whole our class would benefit from direct instruction on inference character traits as well as needing further instruction in context clues. I analyzed the questions asked in related to these skills and I identified what the students would need to be able to do in order to answer these questions correctly.
At the time we were still reading Among the Hidden as our class read aloud novel. So I decided to incorporate my reteaching into this time. I created two anchor charts with graphic organizers. We would reread a portion of text read the previous day and I would walk them through looking more closely at one character’s thoughts, words and actions and using that information to make an inference about that character. Then I would choose one word from that same reading and we would work through thinking through the context of the word, and our inference about what we thought it meant. I followed the I do, We do, You do model to ensure that students understood what they were doing and had ample practice without breaking out a reading passage. The students didn’t even realize that they were participating in test prep.
Making Test Prep Workbooks Work
We did utilize your standard test prep materials, but not in the standard way. We would read the passage as a class and model our thinking as we read. I wanted to model how to interact with text. Then I would have students answer the questions independently. I would then have students partner up with another student and discuss their answers. Their main job was to explain why they chose the answer they chose. They were allowed to change their answer if they wanted to at that point. Then we would “grade” the passage as a class and engage in one more discussion. This approach helped less confident students gain confidence in their ability to figure out how to answer the questions. It also helped our overconfident students learn how to think through their answer choices and not just choose something and assume they were right. We generally gave students 5 minutes for every question and limited the number of questions to no more than six so that more time was spent in discussion with their peers.
I know that it is tempting to have a lot of steps for students to follow when preparing for a test but often those skills or strategies are not applied by students on actual test day. I kept it simple. Although I had a list of three things I wanted students to do I was happy when they did the most important one which was “prove” where in the text they found the answer to a question or what part of the text helped them make an inference.
Although I taught students what an inference was and how to infer a variety of things while reading, we did focus on identifying questions that required them to make an inference. We also taught our students how to identify right there questions as well. Either way my strategy of underlining where they got their answer still served them regardless of the type of question it was because they still had to go back and reengage with the text.
Doing this type of test prep helped my class feel prepared for their state assessment without feeling like we had done nothing, but test prep because we were still pretty much sticking to our approach for teaching reading, but I was also ensuring that students knew how to engage with this type of text as well.
One resource that I did not fully utilize as a classroom teacher that I did learn about as an instructional coach was the lead4ward instructional playlist. As an instructional coach part of my role is to keep teachers on the path of best teaching practices when it comes to preparing for the state test. One way that I did this was by introducing them to the lead4ward instructional playlist/ These playlists helped teachers to still use their favorite test prep resource but pair it with an instructional practice that was effective but also provided students with an element of novelty. Although the playlist is long I had our campus focus on choosing one or two that they wanted to try with their students. It worked. The teachers loved it because the students were engaged and not just bored bystanders in their test prep endeavors. Students loved it as well because the activities were interactive and got them moving during activities that usually required them to be passive. I am including a link to both of their playlists, their original document and their virtual one.
Another resource that I have used as an instructional coach helping students prep for testing are sticky notes. I used sticky notes to have students cover up answer choices. This helps students to read the questions and show their own thinking about what the answer might be. Then students can see which answer choice best matches their thinking instead of trying to conform their thinking to the answer choices. This also proved to be effective for getting students to engage with the text and think through their own responses. I know that this might be hard to wrap our minds around in the age of digital testing, but students can still be trained to do this using post it notes or a notebook.
Using Reading Response Choice Boards for Test Prep
Reading response choice boards are a tool that is generally used year round in order to hold students accountable for their reading. If this is the case don’t abandon this tool during your test prep season, rather incorporate them. Remember that test questions often incorporate graphic organizers that they expect students to identify and know how to use. Also remember that students do better if they have to write out a response to a question. Use reading response choice boards as a way to review what you have taught year round. For example let’s say that the question being asked is an author’s purpose question, you can have students fill out an author’s purpose response organizer before looking at the answer choices. You could also have students choose which questions they would want to use the choice board responses for so that they have some agency when it comes to deciding what they need when. Another way to use choice boards for test prep is to model your thinking when answering these questions during a think aloud. In addition you could give students your passage of choice along with the questions without the answer choices and have them use the appropriate choice board to help them answer the questions. This would foster independent thinking as well as help apply what they have learned all year long. I have created a couple of reading response choice boards to help facilitate this. I have a fiction, nonfiction, argumentative text and poetry choice board resource that you could use to help you reteach concepts already taught during your test prep season or you can have students use in the ways outlined above.
Test prep is such a hot topic and people feel all kinds of way about it. Your feelings are valid, but I hope that you walk away from this post feeling equipped to incorporate your test prep into the best teaching practices that you are already doing. No need to abandon ship. Just keep doing what is best for kids while adding tools to their tool box.
Choose one of the tips I mentioned and incorporate it into your test prep. Tag me on social media and let me know how it worked for you. I want to cheer you on. Click this link to schedule a strategy call so we can craft a test prep plan that works for you and your class.