Within the past decade, state assessment exams have become a dictating factor in education. The scores earned in math and language determine whether the school is passing or failing in education. Most educators know that one test is not an accurate portrayal of student ability but even so, it affects the reputation of the school. My question is: How can I teach the skills necessary to be successful on the state assessment but still maintain a bit of creativity and fun in the lessons?
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Assessment on some level and in some form is a reality and a necessity. The central problem is not these various tests; it is the amount of emphasis we place on them and the "conclusive results" we attempt to draw from them.
Like others have said, teaching the standards in a creative and engaging way is the key. Attitudes (whether toward "fun" or "tests") in the classroom can be contagious. As teachers, when we do our jobs well, our students are prepared for such assessments without even knowing it. At some point in the future, when we can think of and treat assessment as an on-going process rather than a singular event, we will all be better for it.
I like what clairwait has to say about treating terms like "old friends." I love that analogy, and it is so true. Terminology, vocabulary, and other elements of teaching English, shouldn't be kept secret, and they should become an every day part of class. Repetition is key to all successes.
I think it depends a lot on the attitude of the teacher and how they prepare their classes. Certainly we can feel as teachers that having to teach to a test can strangle the life out of our teaching and classes, but there are always opportunities to be subversive in the midst of this in the way we deliver classes and also in the way we get students to revise activities - it doesn't always need to be sheer boredom and pain for both students and teachers! I use loads of games and activities to revise old stuff whilst also subversively introducing new stuff that isn't necessarily part of "the curriculum".
Class can still be fun while teaching skills that will be on state assessments. I also use test questions and incorporate them into my lessons throughout the year in order to prepare them. I also use computer generated "prep" tests. In addition, I always add fun games such as jeopardy.
I have found old test questions online and use them in several activities, including Jeopardy-style games. It gets the kids used to the format and vocabulary in a fun way.
I believe it is important to teach kids the language and format of the tests. I often hear teachers (including myself) say, "My kids know that, they just didn't understand what the question was asking them."
It's not easy, is it? I can only speak from my experience in Washington State, but I have found that the tests, while they are an inaccurate measure, still do contain most of the major curriculum we were already teaching. So it's not really an issue, to me, of giving up on creativity and fun, in fact, they'll learn the material better. It's a question of how to organize it and help them review at the end so that they have a fair chance at the test. Otherwise, it's very difficult to remain focused solely on the test without losing something crucial in your classroom environment.
One way I tried to take the pressure of the big test in my 9th grade class was by CONSTANTLY reinforcing how well my students would do on it if they just relied on taking it slow and using what they knew. Too many students get psyched out by the fact that it is a test. I also would say, from day one, if you can read and understand - you can pass. So we're going to read to understand - ALWAYS. This reminder seemed to take some of the pressure off and helped remind kids that just because they couldn't necessarily "study" for the test didn't mean they wouldn't pass.
I also tried to make games out of as many skills as I could... especially in the final weeks when administrators are circling and wondering exactly what kind of "last minute test prep" you are doing in the classroom. I would really hammer the literary elements hard (because for the rest of HS these are important) - but I'd make them so common that kids treated them like old friends.
ktmagalia is right on in saying that it is a matter of careful lesson planning rather than eliminating creativity. And that makes for better teaching!
Use the "power standards" philosophy. Study and learn your state's curriculum framework. No one expects a teacher to teach every single standard in one semester or school year (depending on whether you are high school, middle school, or elementary). Many states have previous versions of the assessments online. Study them. Look at what standards appear most frequently in the assessments. Those are the "power standards."
Cluster enough instruction around those standards to ensure that every student will know and be able to do those things. Create innovative and engaging lessons. But make sure that at least some of your classroom assessments look like the type of questions your kids will see on the state exams. That way, they will be familiar with the format.
DO NOT use canned workbooks or kill-and-drill test prep. This will bore your students and is proven not to increase student achievement outcomes substantially over time.
Once you have identified your power standards and centered your classroom curriculum around them, then select other standards that you deem important for your kids, and go from there.
As an example, when I taught middle school English, one of my state's "power standards" was figurative language, specifically simile and metaphor. I made sure that every single kid in every single class knew the difference between the two and could identify them in text, as well as explain them. That was not the ONLY figurative language I provided instruction in, but it was one of the main focus areas when we did poetry and I revisited it every time we read anything, including Shakespeare (A Midsummer Night's Dream), The Diary of Anne Frank, Johnny Tremain, and Zlata's Diary.
One way that I knew I was successful in my classroom instruction was that every single student I taught scored "proficient" or higher on any state exam question having to do with simile or metaphor.
I feel your pain in this conflict between scores and creativity, and I think it is a shame that in our zeal to increase scores we feel the necessity to cut back on what makes learning interesting and fun. I don't think that we necessarily have to make that choice, but I do think it calls for more careful lesson planning. Grammar, literary terms, reading comprehension, are all components of state assessments, and can easily be covered with worksheets and note taking. However, will students be actively engaged and learn to their full potential with drill and kill activities in hopes of higher scores on state assessments? I'd much rather, as you imply, present these same elements in a more creative and intriguing lesson, and I think with a little imagination, this certainly can be done. I'm fortunate in that I teach within a district that hasn't been consumed by pacing guides, and which allows me to incorporate standards in whatever capacity I choose. So, I make powerpoints with vocabulary, and I ask students to do the same. I like to use Quizlet for term and vocabulary study, and I use artwork and differentiated assessments whenever possible. I highly recommend reading A Whole New Mind by Daniel Pink, in which he researches "why right brainers will rule the future."
There are three very important assessment methods that I would use in my subject area to sample some aspect of a learner’s behaviour at a given time. These will be examined below.
1. The diagnostic method can help me draw inferences about the learner’s achievements, abilities, motivation and attitudes as well as individual strengths and weaknesses.
2. The formative model is used to provide feedback to the learner about their progress and is used during a learning sequence.
3. The summative method is used to measure the extent of the learning that has taken place at the end of the sequence.
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