A few years ago at Annandale Terrace Elementary, a top-notch Title I school in Fairfax County, Va., we learned that we had not made “adequate yearly progress” on our state tests, as required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Our passionate and progressive staff was stunned. Not making AYP meant that parents could send their children to other schools. We never doubted the potential and abilities of our students; we knew the problem lay elsewhere, and, as a staff, we knew we had to take a long, hard look at our attitudes and approaches to the test.
The first question we asked ourselves was, “Why do our kids need to pass standardized tests at all?” After much soul-searching, we had to admit that state and federal pressures were not the only reasons students needed to learn to pass tests. Test-taking is a life skill. While we believed that the test was biased against our students, many of whom came from low-income families and spoke English as a second language, we also knew that much of their academic and professional futures would be determined by their performance on similarly flawed tests. Many would need to pass tests to get into college and to further their careers. Professions from restaurant employee to certified public accountant to teacher require success on tests just to get in the door.
When it comes to teaching test-taking, many of us abandon everything we know about children as learners.
We decided it was our duty to do everything we could to help our students beat this test—everything, that is, except give up powerful, purposeful instruction.
We set out to explore the disconnect between our students’ abilities and what they showed on the test—particularly the reading test. We studied released items, took the material home, read and reread, and searched for patterns. We took the test as if we were students and tried to imagine what they would be thinking as they studied each passage and possible answer. Through our research, we arrived at the following three fundamental beliefs about preparing students for testing:
1. Successful test-takers must first be smart readers.
Our first “Aha!” moment came when we realized that every standardized test, regardless of its primary focus (social studies, science, or writing) is a reading test first. The reading test is its own genre—complete with its own specific format and language. While we had taught our kids strategies so that they could read and navigate the formats of other genres, we’d never taught them the reading strategies to use with the test genre. We needed to teach them to “read” the test in the same way we had taught them how to hunt for clues in a mystery, to look for action words and ingredients in a recipe, and to visualize while reading poetry. Most of them had never seen a passage or a poem with phrases underlined and lines numbered, as they appeared on the test, nor were they accustomed to dealing with multiple-choice questions or reading small type fonts.
Most test-taking strategies are simply good reading strategies. This was a crucial discovery for us because it meant that our approach to test preparation would change. We would not stop purposeful teaching for a “test-prep program.” We would weave the test genre into our established reading workshops, and teach, explore, and practice it within units of study just as we did with every other genre.
2. Successful test-takers must be able to translate the unique language of the test.
In addition to its own format, the test genre has its own specific language. We decided to call this “test talk.” While “test talk” is English, it’s not the same English our students spoke or even the same English we used to teach them. The language of the test is very formal, and although the same basic reading skills were tested repeatedly, we noticed that the language changed with each question. For example, the tests we studied asked several questions about finding the main idea, yet each question used different vocabulary; none even used the term “main idea.” One question asked students to finish the sentence, “This passage is mainly about …,” and another asked for the “best summary of the passage.” We knew our kids could find the main idea in their reading, but they couldn’t tell which questions on the test were asking them about main idea. In other words, we didn’t have to ask ourselves, “Are we teaching main idea?”—we had to ask ourselves, “How can we help our kids identify and answer main-idea questions on the test?”
Join the related discussion,
We taught specific language for every other subject, because we know that students need a command of the language to truly understand the content. Science teachers know that if they ask students to read directions for a science experiment and perform it without teaching that the word hypothesis is “science talk” for educated guess, the students won’t get past the first direction. We need to apply the same premise and precision to teaching test-taking. When a student reads a test question that says, “The author of this passage included paragraph 3 in order to ...,” he or she needs to know that passage means text and that included … in order to is just test-talk for “author’s intent.” Students are helpless on standardized tests if they can’t decipher test-talk.
3. Learning to be a successful test-taker can be fun.
We knew that test preparation had to engage students if it was to be successful. As teachers, we work hard to make students’ experiences in math, reading, science, and social studies as concrete and exciting as possible. We know that there are visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners in our classrooms, but when it comes to teaching test-taking, many of us abandon everything we know about children as learners and ask students to sit silently at their desks while they read passage after passage and answer question after question. What happened to higher-level thinking? What happened to inquiry? What happened to dialogue? What happened to fun?
A year after implementing this test-preparation approach, our scores rose significantly and our school was taken off the watch list. In fact, scores rose steadily for three years before falling dramatically in one grade. After so much hard work, we were frustrated and confused by our drop in scores. Then we remembered what we’d learned in the classroom and through our research: Education is not an exact science. Real change and success take time. But we see the difference in our students every year. They’ve gone from fearing tests to approaching them with confidence, excitement, and a set of skills and strategies to use. Now they view the test as a reading challenge for which they are well prepared.
One student, Sindi, said it best: “The test makes me think of my soccer team. At the beginning of our season, I used to cry before games because I didn’t know the rules or how to play. That’s how I felt about the SOL [Virginia’s state Standards of Learning test] last year, too. I cried before I came to school. But this year, it feels different. I’m not scared because I know what it’s going to be like, and I know what the words mean. I also know what to do if I get stuck. I feel excited instead of scared.”
A version of this article appeared in the August 15, 2007 edition of Education Week