Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Answering the Questions BEFORE Reading the Passage

Christmas is over. Except for a few diehard holdouts, everybody's decorations are down. It's quite depressing. In my opinion, this is the bleakest time of the year, that stretch of time between January and March. It's cold. It still gets dark early. Many of us are suffering from post-holiday let down. I simply do not like this time of year.

And, as if all of that is not disheartening enough, it's also time to break out the standardized test practice materials at school. My students came back after the weekend to find TWO test practice workbooks on their desks, one for homework and one for class. Their moans and groans were everything I anticipated when I laid the books out for them on Friday.

I handled their discontentment the same way I handle it every year - acknowledge and move on. I gave the kids my "I know you hate taking the PSSA's, but we don't have a choice" speech. I really try to model pragmatism for my students when it comes to high stakes testing. They (and I) need to accept the fact that no amount of complaining is going to make the tests go away. I coach my students to view standardized tests as a "skill" that needs to be mastered. I explain that just like I taught them everything they needed to know to add and subtract fractions with unlike denominators, I am going to teach them everything they need to know to succeed on standardized tests.

Overall, the scores on standardized reading tests are lower than the math scores in my school, so this is where we focus A LOT of our energy as we get ready for the PSSA's. I already know that the key to success on a standardized reading test is being an active reader. The challenge is trying to get my students to recognize what it feels like to read actively so that they can monitor their own level of engagement in an authentic testing situation.

I've tried many different strategies to activate my students' engagement with standardized reading passages. (Considering how boring and irrelevant many of the passages are, this is no small task.) After lots of trial and error, I've concluded that previewing a passage, then reading and ANSWERING the multiple choice questions BEFORE reading the passage increases my students' level of active engagement more than any other approach I've tried.

I am honest with my students about what I am asking them to do. I acknowledge that it takes extra time and effort to read and answer the questions twice, but I also explain that the reward for their diligence will come in the form of improved test scores. Don't think for one moment that standardized test scores do not matter to your students. You can tell them not to worry about the scores, and that they don't count toward their report card grades, but the kids DO CARE. They want to be successful on the test. If you're not convinced, talk to your students openly and honestly about their performance. They'll tell you exactly how they feel.

Once I am able to convince my students that investing in possible answers BEFORE they read a passage helps them sustain their focus while they read because they want to know if they are "right", I then try to scaffold the test-taking process for them as much as I can. We deconstruct the questions and make a list of "test vocabulary" they need to know. We make a chart of all the key words that appear in our practice questions: "point of view", "theme", "conflict", and "conclude" are a few that come to mind. We learn the difference between "right there" and "think and search" questions. We practice highlighting evidence in the text that supports our answer choices. It's an involved process, and I know the kids need LOTS of guided practice before I can release full responsibility to them during testing.

There is one other important concept that I am sure to convey to my students during "test prep" time. I make it unequivocally clear that the way I teach them to approach a standardized test passage is only a test taking STRATEGY. I don't want them to confuse it with the way I teach them to read independently. Reading for pleasure or to gain knowledge should not to be confused with reading standardized passages. I work long and hard to grow a love of reading in the hearts of my students, and I don't want to undermine their love of literature with the arduous hoops I make them jump through when high stakes testing roles around. I draw the line clearly in the sand, so that there is no confusion. I am determined to make students life-long readers AND good test takers. The first because it's my passion, and the second because it's my job.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on standardized test practice in your classroom.

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