How to avoid those winter test-prep blues

By Joan Pokrant, Collins Education Associates consultant and author of Open Response Writing: 18 Strategies to Improve Student Performance

Every winter I hear a familiar refrain from teachers: “I’m trying to get my students ready for the open response prompts like those they will face on the state test, but the kids are sick of the practice, and I feel like I’m just teaching to the test.”

These teachers are trying to do the right thing. They spend the weeks leading up to their state’s high-stakes test trying to help their students become confident and successful writers when answering these open (constructed) response questions. Students should practice a great deal, but teachers are concerned about how to do that without bombarding students right before the test. There must be a better way, they think.

There is. Most states or testing companies release questions from previous tests for teachers to use with students. Many teachers that use them tell me they spend the month before the test giving students practice questions but students’ scores don’t improve. They’re frustrated. A quote attributed to Albert Einstein, comes to mind: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

These questions can be valuable resources if used effectively. Just feeding students question after question, without teaching strategies for understanding, writing, assessing, and revising, will probably not yield different results. And assigning a barrage of questions a month before the test creates another problem: student burn out.

Instead, use the released questions throughout the year to more effectively prepare students. By routinely integrating released questions into units of study in all content areas, we expose students to authentic state test questions. That reduces anxiety for both students and teachers without the burnout effect from last-minute preparation.

Another reason to integrate released prompts is convenience. Why create writing prompts when a pool of test questions is readily available? If released questions that suit your unit of study aren’t available, you can create your own questions by mimicking the characteristics of state test questions. In my book, Open Response Writing: 18 Strategies to Improve Student Performance, I explore several considerations for creating questions that mimic state test questions. For example, when designing questions to integrate into your everyday lessons, try to:

  • Use a mixture of questions (which contain terms such as when, where, how, and why and end with a question mark) and commands (statements which contain terms such as explain, describe, and compare and end with a period).
  • Design questions that have more than one part (e.g., a question that asks when, where, how, or why followed by a command that requires students to explain, describe, or compare).
  • Embed test question vocabulary (i.e., general academic vocabulary terms such as article, excerpt, evaluate, justify, evidence, relevant) so that students become fluent with terms they will likely encounter on high-stakes tests.

My book also explains specific strategies to help students read and understand how to respond to questions. By integrating well-designed questions and teaching strategies for reading and responding to them, students prepare for the test all year without even knowing it.

There are numerous benefits to assigning open response questions throughout the year rather than the month before:

  1. It reduces the anxiety of teachers and students prior to taking state tests.
  2. Students become confident when responding to prompts on tests, because they have had a lot of practice without burnout.
  3. Students become familiar with the general academic vocabulary (GAV) used in questions. Not understanding GAV is one reason students skip answering these types of questions on tests.
  4. It provides teachers with many opportunities throughout the year for formative assessment in all subjects.
  5. It provides many opportunities to discuss content and general academic vocabulary.
  6. It provides many opportunities for writing to learn.

Of course, there is another, farther-reaching benefit to teaching students strategies for reading and understanding a prompt and for writing an effective response: it prepares them to write as adults. Throughout their lives, our students will be asked to write in real life situations such as answering questions on forms and applications, filling out accident reports, writing business plans, requesting information, and endless other situations.

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The reality is that high-stakes tests are here to stay–at least for the foreseeable future. We can prepare students to become confident, successful writers not only by teaching reading and writing strategies but also by assigning meaningful and purposeful assignments throughout the year. That, in turn, will make students well-rounded writers for multiple purposes, including excelling on high-stake tests and for communicating effectively with any audience.

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More in-depth analysis of strategies designed to help students improve their writing skills when answering a prompt can be found in Joan Pokrant’s book, Open Response Writing: 18 Strategies to Improve Student Performance. To preview the book click here.