Test Prep: Thoughts for a Former Student, Now Teaching

In Test-prep Season, This Is What Every Student Is

In Test-prep Season, This Is What Every Student Is

To My Esteemed Student,

I’m sure you remember how I insisted there was no secret manual to becoming a teacher. And how I said any talk of what to do had to be grounded in a review of truth, reality, and your own developing pedagogy. (That sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? But you know how I like that big picture.) So, this is no different, except for being in writing, which means you can skip the big picture stuff and go right to the list. But, I hope you won’t. I’m not even sure what I have to say will be of much specific help, in terms of day-to-day tasks in the classroom. Maybe, though, something I say will help you find a way to ease the weight you feel, as well as some of your students’ anxiety. I should say that none of these ideas are particularly new. The ideas at the foundation of the section about creating context are from a book by William Glasser, called Schools Without Failure. I recommend it.

Beliefs, Truths & Reality (mine, except I believe they should be everyone’s)

  • Standards aren’t necessarily bad; standardized testing and the obsession with scores and test prep are evil, because:
    • they create a learning environment based on intimidation and fear
    • they are based on the outdated belief that what you know signifies something about who you can become, what you can aspire to, how “successful” you will be, and, ultimately, what your value is to society.
    • they suck the joy out of thinking and learning
    • they force us to make caring about each other as people less important than anything else.
  • The way things are right now is the way things are; we have to deal with what we’ve got.
  • With enough awareness, ongoing reflection, and careful planning, we can
    • help students understand the meta of their current schooling experience
    • build a learning environment where students care about ideas, thinking, growing, and supporting each others’ learning
    • cover the content of the tests

Create context

One of the strategies teachers use to deflect student negativity about test prep is the I hate it too, but we just have to suck it up and do it approach. While this might be honest, it will not sustain you or your kids for the long haul. It’s more likely that it will degenerate quickly into badgering, yelling, and threatening. (Remember the first point I made, above?) Here’s how I’d frame test prep: The stuff on the tests is often good stuff to know, but it’s not the only stuff you need to know in life, and it may not even be the most important. It’s just the stuff some people have decided is important this year. Test prep is a chance for you to learn about yourself, as a learner, as a person. The more you know about yourself, the more options you will have in your life. Here’s some of what I’d do to make testing be less about the tests and the test results and more about learning: Teach kids to take stock of their assets and own up to their rough spots

  • What can they count on themselves for?
    • I’m thinking here of qualities and/or dispositions around learning: perseverance, positive self-talk, plain old hard work, asking for help. No amount of drill-n-kill can make up for a lack of self–awareness or the inability to regulate one’s behaviors as a learner. Knowing this about oneself is a foundation of authentic self-esteem.
  • What do they do to fool themselves, take the heat off, avoid working hard? (Make excuses? Blame other people?) What is one specific thing– perhaps one of the strengths they’ve identified above– they cold try instead?
  • What do they do when they feel afraid? (Make excuses? Cut?) What is one specific thing they could try instead?

Identify a couple of key characteristics or dispositions that your kids most seem to need to strengthen. Make these abstract concepts visible in the kids’ lives. A fun way to start to introduce some of these ideas might be to bring a bag of marshmallows to school and have the kids do the marshmallow experiment. Given enough marshmallows, the concept of delayed gratification can become very tangible. 😉  How does the ability to delay gratification relate to developing strong learning habits? Ah, there’s a topic for discussion. If the ability to delay gratification isn’t number 1 on the hit parade of what your kids need to work on, identify other things and come up with some examples. Better yet, ask kids to describe how  people around them count on themselves when it comes to responsibilities like school. Build in time for individual reflection, self-assessment, and some way to acknowledge the hard work of becoming self-aware, of choosing to use strengths in rough spots (i.e., testing). This could be as simple as having kids complete a prompt on a 3×5 exit card, for example, “I learned that I….” or “I saw that I…” that you read aloud — anonymously, at the end of the week, or post on a bulletin board. Build in the opportunity for kids to make real choices. One young teacher I know started a lunchtime reading club two days a week. For the longest time, no one came. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you what happened. But to be able to lay out a clear choice for kids– and to honor what they choose– is important part of a learning process. By that I mean, open an invitation, ask kids to think honestly about whether they need practice, then ask them to make a conscious decision.

Content: the easy(er)– and essential– part

Do a hard-core task analysis of the test questions. What will the kids have to know how to do, from the smallest thing to the largest? What kinds of thinking? Plan rich units: language, ideas, reading, writing, acting, creating, thinking. Weave in the tasks you’ve identified. Keep the focus on learning. Acknowledge positive movement; in a less than positive moment, ask what the child could do differently the next time.

The hard part

All of the above. But that’s not anything you hadn’t already figured out. Actually, the hard part is accepting that you can’t just magically start doing all of this, all at once. You start the content work with test samples from past years and a detailed breakdown of state and local standards. You start the context work by becoming aware. One small step at a time, you put one small piece into place. Go easy on yourself, OK? I’m rooting for you.

Karen Creative Commons License

Image: “Graffiti Hero”  © 2008 incurable_hippie Used under a BY-NC Creative Commons License

2 responses to “Test Prep: Thoughts for a Former Student, Now Teaching”

  1. For me the scariest aspect of standardized testing is how it focuses on finding answers rather than finding questions. Students’ creativity and ability to form unique thoughts and solutions are devalued in favor of developing strategies for selecting the right option. I’m not sure I want to live in a world run by people who are trained to think that way.

    I’m seeing this show up more this year with my students than in years past as those who were raised in the NCLB culture are now entering high school.

    • Karen says:

      Yes, I agree. Stepford Students just become Stepford Grownups.

      All the stuff I’ve written above is just an attempt to carve out a little space where kids can breathe, have a sense that theymatter.

      I used to think we could make change from inside of schools. Now I’m not so sure. Can we start questioning authority again, in any meaningful way, with any good effect? I want kids to question. To wonder. To risk.

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