Saturday, March 2, 2013

Making the Most of Standardized Test Prep

Would you like to hear your students animatedly arguing a point with classmates about a work of literature and supporting it with evidence from the work?

Here are some conversations I heard in my class on Friday about Leo Tolstoy's short story "How Much Land Does a Man Need?":
  • “Here on page 281 it says, ‘As far as the men were concerned, drinking kumiss and tea, eating mutton, and playing on their pipes was all they cared about.’ So Tolstoy says the Bashkirs are not thinking about the land at all, not even about selling it.” 
  • “Wait...Is the whole story really about the Devil? I mean, he’s there, but is the point how bad he is, or is the point the dangers within Pahom’s own self?”

Guess what--they were taking a forced-choice reading comprehension quiz.

Practice for standardized reading tests can a bother to be complained about--or it can be an opportunity for heated discussion, students challenging each other to model their critical thinking process and support their claims; an opportunity to teach critical thinking as well as test-taking strategies, and a bit of learning to think from the perspective of the tester as well. 
  1. Most of the time, students take the quizzes in their table groups of 3-5. They fill it out on their own first, then have an opportunity to share answers and ask each other to support answers that differ. They do not need to end up with the same answers--after discussion, they can agree to disagree. And they can always use the book--this is not an assessment of memory but of reading and analysis. (At the end of each unit they have to take a reading comprehension quiz on their own, so students know the discussions are preparing them for that.)
  2. I nearly always add one last question, after all the multiple choice: Name one reading strategy you used while reading this selection, and give a specific example.
  3. After the quizzes are graded, students have the opportunity to pick up one additional point by correcting one question they got wrong. This is how they do it: They must write an explanation next to each of the 4 multiple choice options--for the three wrong ones, explaining how the test writer thought it might trick an unwary reader, and for the right one, why it is right. 

I read a blog this week that denigrated standardized reading tests as evaluating critical thinking rather than reading. Well, even if the two can be separated, which I doubt, do we really want to abdicate teaching critical thinking? And, while specialized SAT test prep might not be necessary for students coming from English speaking homes filled with books, why would I decline to help my second language students, or students from homes where reading was not such a priority, take a few thousand dollars off their college bill with a little higher score?

The questions students ask while taking the quizzes also give me and them insights beyond the quiz, into the deeper deficits of language and vocabulary. When 10% of my 10th grade students ask me what “shriek” means, I know there’s a vocabulary deficit that’s not going to be made up with a quiz on 10 new words a week. And when an A-student asks about the poetry lines, “The splendor falls on castle walls / and snowy summits old in story” whether “splendor” is an adjective modifying the noun “falls,” as in “waterfalls,” both she and I know it’s going to take a lot of reading to raise the level of language awareness. 

And there we are--back to the question of time. We need time for reading, so we can’t spend it all in preparing for standardized testing. Who'd want to? Minimize it, by all means. But there’s nothing like a little bit of preparation, done in the right way, to raise motivation, investment, and engagement.

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