Testing season is almost upon us - and, as always, it is ironically juxtaposed with Honoring Week where our children truly demonstrate their learning. I feel very grateful that I'm at a school in which test prep is put in what I consider its proper perspective. We don't ignore the tests - it would be inhumane to spring them on our children without any preparation. Instead, we'll spend about an hour getting acclimated to the format of the reading test and then we'll take it. The same for the math (with some additional vocabulary review.) In some districts, test prep takes up the month before the test. In others, it's replaced the curriculum entirely.
Test prep for us begins by talking about the purpose of the MCAs. The state needs a way to make sure that schools are teaching kids. It's not O.K. for students to spend time in schools where learning isn't taking place. Unfortunately, the state needs to find a very inexpensive way to make sure schools are teaching. It's relatively cheap for them to sit all the kids in the state down in front of a computer to answer multiple choice questions. It would be very expensive for them to send a representative to watch all of the honors project presentations. In fact, the MCA used to have open ended responses where kids were asked to write sentences to explain their thinking -- they cost too much to score even though they provide valuable insights. So we help the students understand the context for the test and why one should do one's best on it. We also put it in perspective -- it's an imperfect measure of a small part of what learning is at Prairie Creek.
Then we talk about some test taking strategies so that you can do your best work on tests:
- Relax and have fun. We share ways that they can give themselves physical breaks as well as ways to calm down when they don't know an answer right away. We tell them to plaster fake smiles on their faces if need be because activating the smile muscles sends relaxing signals to the brain (even if you're faking it.) We keep a spirit of fun in our test prep.
- Get interested and puzzle it out. We give them techniques they can use to puzzle out the answer to an unfamiliar (at first) question. Without guidance, students see questions as black and white - they either get it or they don't. We teach students to eliminate answers that don't fit, use clues from other questions to help out, look for patterns in the answers that could be clues to the meaning of the question. We model how to parse out what a question might mean based on context. We stress the importance of engaging with what you're doing - especially for the reading test. Being interested in what you're reading can give you a huge comprehension (and confidence) boost.
- Know what to expect - many schools begin test prep in January (or earlier), going over practice test after practice test. We believe it's useful for students to know the format of the tests and be familiar with the different kinds of questions they might encounter (many questions involve students moving information around or clicking multiple correct answers instead of the traditional multiple choice.) We spend about one class period having the students practice navigating and answering the reading test and then another having them try out the sample math test.
- Be smart - check your work, use your tools - On line tests have tools that can support students' work. We make sure students know how to use these tools and we remind them to use them. Checking work is crucial and we have students use scrap paper to record the computations they make for the math. We also have students jot down quick notes during the reading test - mainly as a way to reinforce slowing down when reading on a screen.
These four simple guidelines can help students learn to see themselves as good test takers (which goes a long way to helping them be good test takers. And these strategies work for every test -- the MCA, ACT, SAT, GRE, LSAT. In our world, this is one way that we are measured and it helps to feel comfortable in that situation. The important thing is that our kids feel comfortable displaying their knowledge in a variety of ways -- even when that way is imperfect.