Like many other teachers in the U.S., we have our high-stakes testing season in the spring. Our school has just finished its first round of standardized testing. Our students in Massachusetts are tested (on the MCAS) in literature, reading and writing skills in March, and in Science and Math in May. So, how do we get our students ready? What are some of the strategies we use in the classroom, and what does our school do as a community?
Practice in Responding to Test Prompts
In English Language Arts, one of the biggest challenges for students is how to answer the “open response” questions, which usually require reading a prompt and responding to it using details from a passage. My ELA teaching partner, Paul, uses our state’s Department of Education website to show students examples of student work and how it is scored from previous years.
We then practice reading passages and responding to prompts. We have students read one another’s responses and determine how they would score them, while offering suggestions and pointers. We also use class time to read and break down the passages, explaining the glossary at the bottom of the pages and identifying vocabulary words that may be unfamiliar and their meanings. We review about “boldfaced words” and what that means, as well as how to turn a question into a sentence.
We use poetry as well as literature, because our students have difficulty summarizing and understanding poetic devices. We tie this into our poetry unit in which kids recite poetry of their choice, as well as our annual song and poetry project, in which they pick a song of their choice, and analyze the lyrics for examples of similes, metaphors, onomatopoeia, hyperbole and alliteration.
Paul has several practice sheets for the kids (see his webpage.) In addition, Paul has the kids analyze specific stanzas (he uses Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven), then has the kids draw what their stanza means, and even throws in a little animated humor: he shows The Simpson’s Halloween (The Raven).
In Mathematics, my co-teaching colleague Aileen uses several methods to help kids get ready for our state’s test:
• Our Daily Do-Nows have Math MCAS Release Questions from previous years. Our students work on a released item at the beginning of class while one of us checks homework. The other teacher clarifies the question if needed, and scaffolds: “What is the question asking me to do?” We then have students volunteer to share their responses at the board, show their work, and explain their solution strategies.
• Aileen plays a game throughout the year using Study Island in which the kids answer questions in teams of four using whiteboards. The Study Island questions are multiple-choice questions similar to what our students will be doing on their math test. She then breaks the question down and explains how to use strategies such as process of elimination and determining which answers make the most sense.
• Aileen also uses her double block (one additional class of 46 minutes per section each week) to review additional math standards, while providing practice on learning algorithms and solving problems.
• She sends home MCAS packets for practice as part of their regular homework, which we then review in class, emphasizing problem solving and answering open response questions (the infamous show or explain your work.)
• Our state allows special needs students to utilize a math reference sheet, which must be approved prior to the testing. These are specific step-by-step methods Aileen uses on a day-to-day basis that provide support for students who have working memory disabilities, who struggle with remembering algorithms, etc. No numbers are allowed on these sheets, and there are specific page lengths, formats, etc., but it is one more tool to help our students who struggle on tests of any kind. We use these sheets throughout the year, and I review how to use them during our academic support class.
Getting Our Whole School Involved
In addition to our grade level team’s teaching approach, our students have a Math Lab class for additional Study Island practice and instruction. Our principal Paul has all of our students take a math assessment both in the fall and later in the spring and placed in a small group RTI class each week on our team to determine which students are struggling the most and would benefit from Math Lab intervention at their level. Harlan, our math lab teacher, also gives our academic support class students time to work in his room when he isn’t teaching. He is a math specialist working with all three middle school grades.
We have a reading specialist, Patrice, who tests students we believe are struggling in reading comprehension. These students may or may not be in special education, but are having some difficulty understanding novels, handouts, textbooks, etc. She keeps copies of all of our teachers’ texts in her classroom, and works with small groups twice a week to help students learn how to grasp the information in their texts, strengthens their knowledge of vocabulary, and also has her room set up with comfortable cushions and rugs so they may do some reading for pleasure.
Accommodations and Modifications
All of our students on IEPs have accommodations for standardized testing, which we utilize throughout the year on tests and quizzes. If students use these accommodations on a regular basis, they are allowable during MCAS (e.g., scribing, use of a computer, clarification of directions, graphic organizers, math reference sheet, etc.)
In addition we have students on 504s who take tests in a small group due to a diagnosis of ADD, test anxiety, etc. Each of these students is matched up with a special proctor during testing. Prior to MCAS, each of the special education teachers provides our principal Paul with a completed form with all of the accommodations checked off from individual students’ current IEPs. We then print out a guide sheet for each proctor with the various accommodations highlighted. The proctors are given a special folder with these accommodations included along with their manual, student test booklets and answer sheets.
Paul also sends out an e-mail with an Excel Spreadsheet listing each student who has a special proctor, the location of their testing room, and who the special education teacher liaison is. I talk with all of my students prior to test and explain who they will be with, give them a pep talk, remind them that they have until the end of the day if they need it, and to use all of their accommodations if they need them.
The two days prior to our school’s first MCAS test, Paul has a grade by grade Kick-Off Assembly. He has a powerpoint that explains the kids’ responsibilities (taking the test seriously, being in school and not being tardy, getting a good night’s rest, eating a good breakfast, etc.). In addition, he reviews some important pointers: boldfaced words mean to pay attention, this is important; answer each open response question completely; take your time, etc.
In addition, the kids are all given a copy of the MCAS schedule for their home refrigerators, and we as a team have a breakfast in homeroom each morning of the test. We also tell our student to bring hard candy if they need it, and to wear comfortable clothing.
The Kick-Off concludes with the students signing an agreement and passing it in. It is a letter from the State Department of Education that Paul has reformatted onto our school’s letterhead. A copy of the letter in its entirety is on page 122 of the principal’s test administration manual. The students then print their name, sign it and date it. A copy of this letter is kept in our their files for 3 years.
“Let’s Beat 240!”
This year’s Kick-Off concluded with a wonderful “motivational” video our National Junior Honor Society adivisor, Narineh, created with help from her students and our faculty. I hope you enjoy watching it as much as we enjoying doing it. (That’s me in the dark sunglasses with my History teaching partner, Pauline.)
Best of luck to you and your students on your school’s standardized testing, now or in the future!