Monday, March 2, 2015

In the final stretch: Preparing for success on the new assessments

For many schools, new testing (PARCC, Smarter Balanced, or other tests) is already underway. For mine in New Jersey, PARCC looms just over the horizon, and my colleagues are worried. We have been scrambling to do everything we can to prepare them in this final stretch before the first round of assessments and will continue to do so in the short weeks leading up to the end-of-year tests.

As instructional coach for humanities and English lead teacher, I have spent significant parts of each day over the last few weeks trying to calm both my colleagues and our students. Yes, the PARCC will be challenging, but we’re doing the right things to prepare. The initial results will likely be disheartening, but we don’t know what “passing” is yet, and it’s just a place to start.

Though we’ve been teaching with the assessments in mind for more than a year, a few things have come into sharper focus in these last few weeks:

It’s critical to help students find solid footing on the writing prompts.

What this means: Make it clear to students that, no matter what texts they are dealing with, the literary and research simulation writing tasks simply ask them to demonstrate that they understand and can articulate the similarities and differences between the texts. If they can do that at least to some degree in an organized way, they’ll be in good shape.

Let’s not kid ourselves: With complex texts, this can be a daunting task, but teaching students to use strategies like SOAP (speaker, occasion, audience, purpose) and to pay attention to textual features (titles, subheads, etc.) can help them get some kind of handle on most texts.

It’s critical to talk to your content area colleagues to identify essential understandings.

Based on its own claims and the sample test items it has released, it’s clear that PARCC will feature relevant reading passages on the tests, rather than the often very obscure and esoteric texts students have often faced in the past. However, I have also observed that even these relatively interesting and relevant texts require significant background knowledge to access them fully.

For example, based on the PARCC practice tests, I would bet money that the PARCC research simulation tasks for multiple grades will include excerpts from Supreme Court decisions. With this thinking I shared an excerpt of the 1920 Supreme Court decision on prohibition with my sophomores, in conjunction with our study of The Great Gatsby. Before doing so, I forwarded the excerpt, which I had edited and annotated with discussion questions, highlighting key vocabulary, concepts and text features, to my students’ social studies teachers to see if they might have an opportunity to connect with or simply reinforce the concepts and/or content we would be discussing. I ended up having a very useful conversation with one of them who shared the essential framework that he teaches students to use in interpreting a Supreme Court decision. He reminded me that students first need to understand the role of the Supreme Court, which is to determine constitutionality rather than guilt or innocence. (We can’t assume that students will know this.) Then, they need to understand that a Supreme Court decision is always answering a question (e.g., is prohibition constitutional?). I realized that these two understandings are essential to my students having success with the decision we would be discussing and any that might be thrown at them on the PARCC assessments.

It’s critical to give students ample practice on the test format.

Run through each of the available practice tests for the grade level below your class to give your students explicit practice in manipulating the online testing interface before having them do a “real” practice test that you might grade or at least score. The drag-and-drop test items are particularly tricky. You don’t want your students’ success on the tests to be diminished by technical issues. And even though you have likely asked them the same types of questions in your classes, students, as we well know, often fail to recognize that they do understand a question just because it’s presented in an unfamiliar way.

That said, it’s critical to tie this work back to your existing curriculum.

Don’t spend all your time between now and testing on practice tests. The skills the assessments are asking your students to demonstrate are important. Students should be reading critically and using evidence to support their thinking and writing about the texts they read, and the texts they read should be challenging. But the time you devote to test preparation – mandated by your school/district and/or your own conscience/anxiety – doesn’t have to and shouldn’t happen solely with materials developed by PARCC or Pearson – for a number of reasons.

I had a conversation with one of our English teachers who was frustrated that her students didn’t seem to be taking the practice tests seriously. After mulling over how the students were acting and various strategies we could try, we realized what was shutting them down. It was too much. They were struggling not only with the readings (including the syntax, the vocabulary, and the background knowledge needed to access them), but with the wording of the questions themselves as well. We decided to backtrack. Rather than forcing the students to deal with new complex texts and challenging questions on top of operating the unfamiliar testing interface, we decided to return to articles they’d read previously and give them practice on PARCC-style questions on those first, so they can get a clear handle on the task (see above) before returning to the more challenging, unfamiliar texts on the practice tests. 

Whether your students are struggling with the practice tests or soaring above them, there’s no need to abandon your curriculum in favor of test prep. They are not mutually exclusive. Whatever great works you’re studying, tweak the materials you’re using (or find new ones) to give your students more or less explicit practice on the types of questions they’ll see on the new assessments. That way, you can get back to the rich content in your curriculum while knowing that you’re preparing your students for success in the best way possible, by having them read, think, and write deeply about works worth reading, thinking, and writing deeply about.

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