Standardized testing is a part of most classrooms. But many teachers struggle with how to develop strong critical-thinkers, creative problem-solvers, and global citizens rather than simple test-takers. Here are four ways to ensure students do well on state exams and truly understand what they are learning.
1. Build Relationships
More than anything, building relationships with students is the key to helping them be successful. Of course, this works best with a smaller class size and takes much more work with a large group, but it can be done and does make a difference. I start by telling my class, "We are a family. As a family, we may argue and get on each other's nerves, but we are also fiercely loyal and devoted to the success of every family member." I work to get to know each student through discussions, journal entries, and one-on-one chats. I also use a great deal of humor in the classroom to break the ice and to help my students relax—after all, standardized testing can be stressful. I also use incentives like pizza parties or field trips (organizations like DonorsChoose often help me with funding). This helps build solidarity and a common goal in the classroom.
2. Use "Making Student Thinking Visible" to Nail Open Response Questions
A couple of years ago, my school offered free professional development in the form of a 45-hour online course titled "Making Student Thinking Visible" (MSTV), part of John Saphier's Research for Better Teaching. The goal of MSTV is to help students articulate their thinking, so they become confident enough to manage their own discussions. The principles of MSTV include calling on all students, pausing and using wait time, avoiding judgment, and validating confusion.
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Before MSTV, I'd ask questions about a reading or a poem, the same four or five students would answer, and I'd assume everyone understood—but that wasn't always the case. Now, I put students in groups of three or four, and everyone must participate. For example, last week my students read the poem "It Sifts From Leaden Sieves" by Emily Dickenson. In their groups, they answered questions such as, "What is 'it' in the poem?" I listened as one student said, "It's dirt." Another student countered, "I don't think so, because 'alabaster' is white." Another interjected, "And the time of year is definitely winter." Gradually, the students came to the realization that the poem is about snow. Although it is sometimes difficult for me to "allow the struggle" as my students grapple with difficult work, they become so much more adept at breaking down questions, looking for evidence, and finding answers when I do, which ultimately helps them become better at answering open response questions.
3. Debate Multiple Choice Questions
I used to wrestle with the fact that I was going to have to have my students answer multiple-choice questions to familiarize them with the type of testing they could expect on the state exam. How could I make the experience valuable and meaningful for my students? First, I had my class complete multiple choice questions individually. Then I put them in small groups to argue out their answers, and then into a whole group to decide which answers were correct. In order to make a case for their choices, students were forced to explain and provide reasoning and evidence for their answers. Listening to my students debate their choices was as compelling as any courtroom drama. They pointed out faulty analysis, sloppy thinking, and detractors. This practice goes beyond rote multiple choice answering and helps students become better thinkers.
4. Write Frequently
There's no such thing as too much writing in the classroom (a fact that has taken over many weekends for me!). And writing should not just be the responsibility of the English or language arts teacher—students should write across disciplines. I ask my students to write narratives, literary analysis essays, synthesis essays, and essays of argumentation. Much of the writing is done in the classroom, so students can conference with me to ensure they have strong thesis statements, supporting paragraphs, and conclusions. We constantly work on grammar, punctuation, and spelling. The process starts off rather tedious, but after a while, as students become more skilled at writing and better understand my expectations, they become more confident and their writing gets stronger. I also provide my students with plenty of examples of good writing. As they read literary criticisms, personal reflections, and debates written by the masters, they begin to internalize style, transition words, and vocabulary. When faced with the long composition prompt on the state exam or SAT, students are ready.
Standardized testing will probably always be part of education. But by following these easy steps, you can ensure that your students truly learn and understand class material, and are ready to ace state exams.