Thinking on Education: Test Prep Without Teaching to the Test

We’re in the throes of testing season, with all of its accompanying drama and anxiety. Educators worry if their students will do well. Students either stress out, or totally check out on testing day. And of course, everyone secretly just wants it all to be over.

With all the pressure districts and teachers have to perform, how do we prepare students for these high-stakes assessments without resorting to “teaching to the test”? Education experts say that not only is teaching to the test ethically wrong and yields an inaccurate result, but it’s really not an effective way to prepare students.

“It’s entirely possible to prepare students for standardized tests in a way that maximizes what we know about learning sciences [and] metacognition,” said Jennifer Borgioli, a senior consultant at Learner-Centered Initiatives, in a 2018 Education Week post. “[B]ut this requires quality professional development and district-based guidance around what that looks like inside a standards-based, high quality, learner-centered curriculum.”

Teaching Curriculum vs. Teaching the Test

Experts point to “curriculum teaching” versus “item teaching” for test prep. Educators who gear their instruction to the state standards — and its applicable knowledge and skills — teach curriculum. Those who focus their instruction only on what is on the test are item teaching. As a result, they narrow and limit students knowledge and skills, robbing students of deeper learning, as researchers pointed out in a 2017 Journal of Experiential Education article.

If teachers clearly understand their state’s education standards and what will be tested on state assessments, they can use curricular content to prepare their students.

“Curriculum-teaching, if it is effective, will elevate students’ scores on high-stakes tests and, more important, will elevate students’ mastery of the knowledge or skills on which the test items are based,” said W. James Popham, an emeritus professor of UCLA, in a 2001 ASCD post.

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The best test preparation is that which hones critical thinking and problem-solving skills. This is best done using inquiry-based and student-focused instruction that makes students active learners.

Research shows authentic project-based learning, problem-based learning and experiential learning models can greatly help students master these abilities. As students tackle tough problems and questions throughout the school year and find their own pathways to solutions and answers, they gain the confidence and skills needed. They learn for themselves that they can figure out answers, even when they may not have complete information.

Award-winning middle school teacher Heather Wolpert-Gawron explained in a 2017 Edutopia post that educators should teach students how to retrieve and use what they already know.

“Teach them how to activate prior knowledge or make connections to the material. For many kids, this doesn’t just happen magically — we have to preach it over and over and show them that they already have far more knowledge of our content areas in their heads than they realize,” she said.

Two test-related methods teachers can use is teaching students how to review for tests and how to navigate the process of test-taking.

Teaching Test-Review Skills

Pete Barnes, an Ohio fifth-grade science teacher, shared a fun way to teach students test-review skills in his February 2019 Edutopia article. He set up a Science Ninja game-based unit. Students had specific tasks and skills they needed to complete, but Barnes organized it in a way that allowed students more choice in their training.

“Students choose tasks from a Training Menu to prove their mastery of life science, outer space, force and motion, and more,” he said, explaining that the tasks included scavenger hunts for information, videos, simulations, matching activities, lab work and model-building activities.

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“Each of these tasks also include a short assessment that students check on their own and then verify with the teacher before moving on to the next task,” he said.

Teaching Test-Taking Skills

Wolpert-Gawron also shared strategies for teaching test-taking skills. Because many state assessments are now computer-based, she encouraged educators to incorporate technology aptitude teaching in their curriculum throughout the year.

For example, she suggested teachers create lessons that require students to use audio tools that will read text aloud, learn the meanings of typical computer icons, practice general word-processing and keyboard skills, and how to use hyperlinks, videos and images.

Studies Weekly testing

“Don’t take for granted that our digital natives know how to use the digital tools they need in order to be successful on their online tests,” she said.

She also encourages instructing students in the language of the test. This type of preparation helps all students, whatever their level, better understand the process of testing, including English-language learners.

Betsy Gilliland and Shannon Pella explained in their 2017 book, “Beyond Teaching to the Test,” that according to their research, few high-stakes tests were normed or validated for use with English-language learners during the “No Child Left Behind” era.

“What this means is that in many cases, the complex language used on tests prevents students from understanding what they are supposed to do or from showing their knowledge of the content,” they said.

All students should understand the typical vocabulary used in test directions, so they actually know what it asks them to do.

“Make a list of the most common words used in test instructions. Remember that telling students to read the directions isn’t enough if they can’t understand the directions,” Wolpert-Gawron said.

Teach Confidence

Some of the best test prep is the simplest. Teachers should help students practice recognizing their own successes, and going into a test with a positive mind, Dan Henderson explained this in a 2018 TeachThought prep article — that also hilariously illustrated some of the more absurd test-day requirements.

Many teachers are frustrated with how testing season and test prep cut into instruction time. But with some planning, it can simply be part of effective, authentic instruction.

Teachers who use Studies Weekly for Social Studies and Science have the benefit of knowing where their students are at multiple points in the school year through ready-made, but customizable formative assessments. To learn more, visit studiesweekly.com//online/pdod.

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