The Benefit in Teaching Students How to Prepare for Tests and Quizzes

I am a product of the American public school system during a time when standardized tests, quizzes, and unit tests were how they measured your intellect and academic progress.  In my 14 years of schooling, you see I failed kindergarten and had to complete a year of Transition before moving into the First Grade, I completed numerous tests and quizzes.  The total is probably somewhere in the 100s.  However, despite the focus on tests and quizzes as a way of measuring what students know, not once in all of my years in school did I ever learn how to effectively prepare or study for tests.  No teacher ever explained how to study for a test or prepare to complete a test.  Not one of my teachers ever went over how to attack a test, especially one of the standardized nature.  I never learned how to prepare for the mountain of tests I was forced to complete.  Luckily, school came easy for me.  I figured out the system by the sixth grade and learned how to do school like a professional student.  I achieved the Honor Roll every quarter from the sixth grade through to graduation.  I learned early on how to please teachers and give them what they wanted.  While this skill helped me be successful while in school, in retrospect, it is also what prevented me from learning the material in a truly meaningful manner.  While I retained the basics from my many years in school, I don’t recall much more than that.  My knowledge of what I should have learned from my many history courses is shaky at best.  I wish I had learned how to effectively learn what my teachers were teaching me.  I wish I was provided with tips on how to retain information and move it from the working memory into the short-term memory, and so on.  I wish my teachers had given me more of a foundation in the skills of learning instead of focusing on the learning and facts themselves.

As a teacher who realizes the negative impact of not learning how to effectively learn, I make it a point to focus on the foundational skills of learning throughout the year in my class.  I want my students to know how their brain takes in information and stores it.  I want my students to see that if they can link facts or pieces of information with prior knowledge, it will more easily be stored in the brain for future use.  I help my students see the power in learning something in a fun, novel, and engaging way.  I teach my students tricks regarding memory retrieval, as that is the vital part of the process of learning.  I don’t want my students to graduate from high school feeling as though they didn’t really learn much.  I want my students to learn how to learn for the sake of learning.  I want to empower my students with knowledge on how to prepare for tests and quizzes.  I want my students to be and feel like successful students.

While I am not a huge fan of cumulative unit tests, I can’t deny the fact that my students will be taking tests of that nature in the sixth grade and beyond.  During the first half of the year in my fifth grade classroom, my students learn how to learn.  I teach them about the power of their brain and how it works.  I provide them with tricks on how to retain information.  I teach them skills ahead of knowledge.  I teach them how to use their peers as resources.  I show them how learning and school can be fun and engaging.  Then, during the second half of the academic year, I focus on preparing them for the numerous challenges they will face in the years ahead.  I teach them how to prepare for tests and quizzes.  I teach them how to manage their time in order to complete their work and assignments.  I teach them how to attack school with vigor and fury.  I prepare them for a future of taking in information and regurgitating it in some form again, and luckily, I am not alone.  The great school at work I work promotes this idea of skills first, knowledge second across the grades.  Students at the Beech Hill School learn the value of learning.

As we are in the downward hump of our school year, I am focusing my energy on helping my students learn how to prepare, study, and complete tests and quizzes.  As we just finished a large unit in Science class on Ecology, I took the opportunity to introduce and teach test preparation skills.  Prior to the test, we played a fun review game that covered all of the information learned throughout the unit.  The students retained almost every knowledge nugget I had thrown at them.  Yes, they learned the value in the retrieval strategies I had taught them earlier in the year.  Then, following this fun review game, I spent a period exploring test preparation skills with the students.  How do you prepare for a test?  What does that process look like?  I introduced the steps of the process to the students before I taught them how to create an effective study guide.  I also explained to the students the power in asking questions.  “Some teachers,” I said, “will be very straightforward with you about what will be on a test, while others will not.  It is your responsibility to ask questions regarding things you don’t understand or know.  If the teacher doesn’t tell you what will be covered on the test, just ask.”  I allowed my students to pepper me with questions.  I even showed them the test and went over it.  I don’t want them to think of the skill of test preparation as some secret and scary thing.  I want them to learn that it’s part of the learning process.  Solidifying and reviewing the information that is stored in their short-term memory, will allow it to be more easily moved into their long-term memory.  After our lengthy discussion and study-guide-making period, I explained the next step, studying.  What does studying look like?  “Knowing yourself as a student is crucial for this final step of the test preparation process.  Knowing how to best review the material will help you be more effectively prepared to showcase what you retained,” I told the students.  I then had the students think about how they learn best?  Are you a visual student?  Do you work best with others?  Do you take in information auditorily?  What works for you?  Each student then generated a study activity that they felt would work best for them.  One student made a Kahoot! review quiz, as he learns best from doing.  Another student chose to create a mock test from her study guide, as she learns best from thinking through all possibilities.  Other students worked with a peer to test each other on the material.  Each student chose a strategy or activity that works for them.  Their homework that evening, was to complete this process.

I felt confident that this first lesson on test preparation was successful.  Of course, this is only one of many lessons like it that I will teach throughout the year to help fully prepare my students for the numerous learning opportunities they will face in their future years of schooling.  I did feel as though the students seemed to understand the power in effectively preparing for a test.  They asked many insightful questions, created a useful study guide, and brainstormed some very cool ideas on how they will study for the test.  I felt hopeful.

Then came the test on Friday morning.  While I know that my students do indeed know the material covered on the test, I also realize that test anxiety is a real struggle for some students.  Despite knowing their stuff, some students freeze up during a test and are unable to recall what they know.  As this was our first large test of the school year, I wanted to be sure that my students felt as stress-free as possible.

Before the students arrived to school that day, I had left them each an inspirational note on their desk.  “You can do it.  You know this stuff.  You’ve got it,” were some of the messages I wrote on the sticky notes I stuck to the tables where they were working that day.  They seemed to like these notes.  I think it helped to lighten the mood in the classroom as well.  Directly preceding the test, I explained the brain research on test-taking before having the students complete some Brain Gym exercises.  They seemed to really enjoy these activities.  They liked being able to move around and get their blood pumping.  I then gave the students time to get some water, sharpen a pencil, and go to the bathroom before sitting down to complete the science test.  I then went over the importance of not talking during the test so as to respect your peers.  Once I handed out the tests, they got right to work.  I played some instrumental focus music via Youtube so that the room wouldn’t be entirely silent during the test.  Research studies have shown that soft music can help with memory retrieval and serenity during stress-inducing situations like taking a test.  I also handed out, to those students interested, a small butterscotch candy that I called test fuel.  Having something to chew or suck on allows the brain to do its job more effectively.  Throughout the test, the students asked very few questions.  They drew diagrams and wrote lengthy explanations to questions about ecosystems and biomes.  The one thing I didn’t see in the classroom during the test was stress or nervousness.  None of the students fidgeted in their seats or looked around the room confused.  They all seemed to look as though they knew what was going on, as if they were prepared.  It was pretty awesome.  Everyone finished in the allotted time as well.  After all of the students completed the test, we celebrated with a round of applause and tasty gummy worms.  It felt really good to me.  I was excited to assess their tests and see all that they learned about our unit on ecology.

Test Taking

Later that day, I graded and assessed their tests.  I was most impressed and excited by how well they all did.  Their diagrams showing how plants grow, including the process of germination as well as the resources required for growth to take place, were detailed and nicely demonstrated their understanding of this concept.  Their answers to the written responses were thorough and spot on.  Only one student struggled with one of the graded objectives, and when I met with him that afternoon to reassess him one-on-one through a discussion, he was able to explain his diagram in a way that showed me he understood the concept very well.  I can’t say that I was blown away by the result of this first major test-taking experience because this class of students is so amazing on a regular basis anyway, but I was incredibly proud of how well they all did.  They took this chance to practice taking a test very seriously.  They put their best into this whole adventure.

Our first foray into preparing for and completing a test was a huge success.  Was it the in-class preparation we did on Wednesday and Thursday of this past week?  Did the fun review game help them to retrieve the information from their memories?  Was that what helped?  Or was it that they learned how to prepare for and study for a test?  Did that lesson on the steps of the test-taking process help them effectively prepare for Friday’s big test?  Perhaps it was that I had provided the students time in class to create a study guide and study for the test.  Maybe that was the kicker that put them over the top.  Or was it something that took place on Friday?  Maybe the Brain Gym exercises helped alleviate some of their stress.  Or perhaps it was the test fuel or the positive notes on their desks.  Maybe those helped them attack the test with confidence and energy.  While I could probably ponder this whole experience until I am blue in the face, I don’t believe that it was just one thing.  Taking a test is an experience with multiple prongs.  The students have to have learned the information in meaningful ways first.  Then, they have to prepare for the exam in an effective manner.  Once they are ready for the test, they then have to complete the test in a way that will reduce the amount of cortisol that is released in their brain.  It’s a multi-pronged experience.  All of what we did throughout this unit led to Friday’s awesome outcome.  The students did so well because of every aspect of the learning process.  It’s good to know that they are now well on their way to being effectively and meaningfully prepared to attack the many tests and quizzes they will see in their future.

Does Study and Preparation Impact the Outcome of an Assessment?

In my previous blog entry from yesterday, I examined the most effective way to help prepare students for a math assessment.  I hypothesized that because we provided the students with lots of extra time to review, practice, seek help, and prepare for the exam, that they would all fare quite well and not need to complete the test redo process.  Following Saturday’s final preparation period, I felt as though each and every student was prepared and ready for the assessment.

Then came the assessment, today in STEM class.  While many of the students did do quite well and felt successful, two of the students in my math groups do need to complete the redo process for one objective.  Now, this isn’t at all a negative outcome.  In fact, today’s result is actually an improvement from past assessments.  Usually, at least three to five students need to complete the redo process for one or more of the objectives.  This time, only two students need to redo one objective.  That’s a huge change from earlier in the year.  So, in my mind, the extra preparation and review time we allowed, helped the students better meet, and in many cases, exceed the graded objectives.  The boys seemed to feel prepared and felt confident, for the most part, when they turned in their completed assessment.  In my mind, today’s outcome was successful and positive in every way, and proved that students do need extra time to process information to prepare for a math assessment.

But what about those two students who need to complete the redo process for one objective?  What happened there?  Why did they struggle to display their ability to meet one graded objective?  Did they not effectively study and review the skills covered outside of class?  Each of the two students struggled with the same objective involving word problems.  They were unable to transform a word problem into an algebraic expression in simplest form.  Was this because the problems were too tricky?  The two problems came directly from previous lesson check-in assessments, and had been reviewed and discussed in class on a few separate occasions.  While they were challenging problems, they were not impossible or meant to fool the students in any way.  So then, why did these two students get both word problems wrong on their chapter assessment?  What happened?  Although their answers were, in some cases, somewhat close and showed an understanding of the skill, they did not simplify their response or properly execute the needed computations.  In this particular case, more review did not help these students understand how to turn written descriptions into algebraic expressions.  Would anything have helped them?  Some students just struggle with word problems, which is why we completed a whole unit on how to tackle word problems earlier in the year.  I even reviewed the four steps involved in the problem solving process when the students worked on this skill of turning words into algebraic expressions.  Nothing seemed to help these two students with this one objective.  While I would have loved to have seen all of my students master every objective covered on today’s assessment, these two students still have a chance to master the skill with which they struggled by completing the redo process.  Some students just struggle with word problems and how to decipher them.

Overall though, I was very pleased with today’s outcome and realized how important giving the students time to review major concepts prior to completing an assessment is to the learning process.  We can’t expect our students to master skills in just a day or two before completing an assessment; they need time to ask questions, complete practice problems, and review the concepts covered before demonstrating their mastery of the skills or topics covered.

How Much Test Preparation is Effective?

I was never a good test taker in school.  For one, I didn’t really know how to study.  Do I reread the pages in the text book?  Make flashcards of vocabulary terms?  Reread my notes a bunch of times?  My teachers never taught me how to study.  So, I usually just glanced over my notes and called it a day.  As I was a relatively good writer, essay exams were my jam.  I generally aced those.  But when it came to standardized tests or multiple guess exams, I struggled.  The questions were tricky on purpose and I didn’t know the material well enough to take an educated guess.  No test prep in the world could have helped me when I took a fill-in-the-bubble test.

As a teacher, I’m armed with my experiences as a student.  I hated tests and still feel as though they prove very little about how much students have learned material.  Most students cram for exams and will often due quite well, but when you ask them about the content learned weeks later, they remember almost nothing.  In those cases, there was clearly no genuine learning taking place.  So, as a teacher, I rarely use tests as assessments, except for math, as that is how they will be assessed in all future math classes at my school.  Being mindful of this, I know that I need to prepare them for next year.  Following each math unit, I have the students complete a math assessment.  I make sure there are no multiple choice questions on the exam.  I also spend much time going over study strategies and techniques.  What’s the best way to study and what does that look like?  Usually though, I only have one day of review in class prior to the assessment, and what I have found is that some students struggled on the assessment.

Keeping this in mind when I planned my current math unit, I made sure to leave more than a week for review, discussion, and preparation.  I want all of my students to feel ready and prepared while also being successful.  I had the students complete a math review packet last week.  Once they completed the packet, I gave them the answer key so that they could correct their work.  For every problem they got wrong, they had to explain why it was wrong, as I want them to own their learning and truly comprehend the skills covered throughout the unit.  Then, I made myself available throughout the week during class and outside of class for extra help.  A few students took advantage of this extra support and saw me for help.  I addressed their questions and had them complete sample problems regarding the skills with which they struggled.  This seemed to help those few students feel much more prepared and at ease for Monday’s exam.

As this lengthy preparation is a big change from past units, I wonder if this new method is more or less effective.  Did I spend too much time preparing my students for tomorrow’s math assessment?  I could have used that week to begin another unit.  Did I spend too much time having the boys review the major vocabulary terms covered in the unit?  Will they be better prepared for tomorrow’s exam because they were provided with extra time to process the information and complete some practice problems?  Will I see a difference on their assessments?  I’m hopeful that they will all do very well as I feel as though I had a chance to check-in with all of them over the course of last week to be sure they understood and had mastered all of the skills covered.  I’ll have to wait until tomorrow to find out for certain, but I do feel as though giving the students extra time to review for tomorrow’s assessment will help them be and feel successful.

What’s the Most Effective Way to Help Students Feel Prepared for an Assessment?

Ughhh, tests.  I hate them.  In fact, I hate everything about them.  I was never a good test-taker in school and so my grades were never perfect since I usually flopped on major tests and quizzes.  I felt like my teachers created test questions just to trick us, the students.  Why?  What purpose does that serve other than asserting one’s authority?  Students are not going to respect a teacher who purposefully creates difficult and tricky tests and quizzes.  And don’t even get me started on standardized testing.  A monkey could complete a standardized test and score better than me.  What does that prove?  That I’m dumber than monkey?  Although that may be true regarding some topics, it simply proves that any mammal with fingers can fill in a bubble.  Standardized tests do not showcase an individual’s knowledge of concepts or subjects, but rather are a waste of valuable time.  Just talking about testing makes me angry.  I detest everything about it.  However, I do also realize that my students are going to face the unnecessary pressure of testing throughout their academic futures, and so I must prepare them for what is to come.

B-wait for it-UT, I can definitely make the testing experience for my students much better than my past horror stories.  I don’t have to create difficult tests.  I don’t have to try to fool my students.  I don’t have to foster unending pressure within my students regarding testing.  I can actually make the testing experience for my students enjoyable and non-threatening.  It starts with the actual name: Test.  I do not test my students as if they are rats in a cage.  This is not Salem and I do not need to find out if my students are witches.  I do assess my students.  How are they progressing towards meeting and/or exceeding the objectives?  What else can I do to help support them on their journey of learning and understanding?  I don’t test my students, I assess them.  The “tests” I give them are called assessments.  An effective assessment should allow students to demonstrate their knowledge of a topic, skill, or concept in a simple, straightforward manner.  They are also not the end-all-be-all of the learning process.  Students can be assessed multiple times in multiple different ways.  If a student does not do well on a written assessment, I will assess him orally to determine his understanding of the content.  I want my students to be successful and so I will do whatever it takes to help them be and feel a sense of accomplishment and pride in the learning process.  I also allow redos on written assessments for those interested students.  While the redo process is cumbersome and challenging, it truly showcases a student’s learning and allows me to know if they have mastered the concept or not.  It also helps teach the students the valuable lesson of preparation: Redos are not necessary if you are prepared going into a written assessment.  Assessing students is a process and not a singular event.  I want my students to see learning as a journey and not a destination.

Today in STEM class, I helped my students prepare for their first written math chapter assessment that will take place in class on Tuesday.  I met with each of my two math groups in class and discussed the assessment.  I shared the document they will see on Tuesday with them.  I went through the format and problems involved.  I answered questions they had and made sure they felt completely ready and prepared.  I don’t want them to be nervous between now and Tuesday.  I want them knowing exactly what the test will look and feel like.  There should be no surprises.  During the remainder of class, the students worked on completing the chapter review exercises in their textbook.  They worked with their peers when questions arose and I helped guide those struggling students to a place of comfort and understanding.  It was great.  I feel very confident in my students.  I feel as though they are prepared and ready to go for Tuesday’s assessment.  Throughout the unit, my co-teacher and I have formatively assessed the students on the objectives we will be summatively assessing them on in Tuesday’s chapter assessment.  We have both worked with those students in our group who struggled to display their ability to meet one or more of the objectives.  Through the reteaching and reassessment process, they demonstrated their ability to master the skills they once were challenged by.  Now, I wait until Tuesday to find out how they do.  Do they really know their stuff?  Have they genuinely learned the math content?  Can they still meet and exceed the objectives covered?  After Tuesday’s assessment, I will have a much better idea if the process my co-teacher and I used to help prepare our students for this first chapter assessment was effective or not.  If not, we will discuss how we can change the preparation process to better, more effectively prepare our students for the next chapter assessment in STEM class.

Reflecting in the Moment

This past weekend, I hosted a school-sponsored trip to go apple picking at a nearby orchard.  The weather was brilliant and the boys had a blast.  The apple picking wasn’t fantastic, but if you were patient, then the best apples had a way of finding you.  I walked around the orchard with two sixth graders from my class as they had never been apple picking before.  I wanted to show them the ropes.  We walked past several trees that didn’t seem to have any apples left.  Then we happened upon a tree that seemed quite full of red apples.  So, we started picking, and that’s when we realized that the tree was playing a nasty little trick on us.  From our angle, the apples looked perfect, but in fact were quite rotten or infested with various insects.  I explained to the boys, the art of apple picking.  You need to be choosy and picky.  You can’t pick every apple you see.  You must inspect the apple completely before pulling it from the tree to be sure it is not funky.  So, we continued walking about, looking for some pickable apples.  While we happened upon a few funky ones, we did manage to find plenty of great apples.  The key is in taking the time to look and observe before yanking.  While I’m not sure if these young men will ever have another chance to go apple picking as they come from a large city in China, they now know the ins and outs of apple picking.  It’s an art.  It’s all about stopping and thinking.

In the classroom, we refer to stopping and thinking as reflection: Taking the time to look back at what you did and learn from it.  While I usually do this after classes every day in this very blog, because I’ve gotten so into the habit of reflecting, I’m now always thinking in terms of reflection.  How did that lesson go?  Could it have been better?  Could my interaction with that student have been more effective?  I find myself mentally reflecting almost all of the time.  It’s great.

Today was the dreaded ERB Testing day at my school.  I hate standardized tests.  While gathering data for checkpoints can be beneficial, I also question the validity of filled-in bubbles.  What does they really tell us?  I’d much rather have a student respond in writing or orally to questions.  That way I really know if he knows his stuff or not.  I could guess on a standardized test and possibly score quite high on the scale.  Does that say anything about my aptitude or intelligence?  Not really.  Anyway, testing is yucky, but we administer them in the sixth grade because our school mandates it.  So, like a good teacher, I follow my orders.

The students did a great job.  They sat still, were generally focused, and seemed to really be putting forth excellent effort.  I was very impressed.  Very little policing needed to take place as they took the test in class today.  After the first few testing sessions, the students had a 15 minute break to get a snack, run around, or use the restroom.  They needed the time to recalibrate before completing the next section.  I reminded them that the ninth graders would be in classes and that other groups of students might be taking the test too.  They needed to be quiet and respectful when in the academic buildings.  I thought for sure that they could handle this.  I forget to take into account that they had been sitting, focusing on a challenging test for the past two hours.  How could they possibly be prepared to make smart decisions?

As the students began to filter back into the classroom, a colleague of mine came to report to me that some of the students had been running through the hallways, screaming as ninth graders were in class.  Holding the bar high, I sternly ended their break and had them return to their seats.  I expressed my disappointment in their choices and informed them that they would not get another break prior to lunch.  They struggled to follow our school’s core values and were disrespectful to their Cardigan brothers.  I moved right into the next testing session.

After I laid into my students, I started to wonder, Was I too hard on them?  No, they needed to be reminded of the rules and expectations.  If I didn’t mention it or make a big deal of it, they might think that they could act like that again.  We can’t have that.  Then, on my way to get a fresh cup of coffee, I chatted with a colleague.  He asked me how the testing was going for my students.  “Things are good.  The boys are doing well, but a teacher did tell me that some of the students were seen running in the building, shouting as they made their way back to the classroom.”  His feedback helped me to see the light.  “What did he expect?  They’re sixth grade boys who have just been cooped up in a classroom taking a test all morning.  Of course they had energy in need of escaping.”  I never thought about it like that.  Maybe I was not the only one who overreacted.  Perhaps my colleague had also overreacted by reporting the incident to me.  Sure, I want my students to be compassionate and respectful at all times, but on a day like today, we should be a bit more lenient.

After my students finished completing the test section they were working on, I got a little discussion going.  I shared my thoughts with them.  “While it was not appropriate to run and scream inside an academic building, you are sixth graders who had been sitting, taking a test all morning.  Excess energy was bound to build up.  You just need to be more mindful of other students next time when you allow that energy to escape.”  I asked if any of the students would like to explain what happened and own their mistakes.  Several students raised their hands and took responsibility for their actions.  They had been running inside and shouting.  They then realized the error of their ways.  I was impressed with the courage it took to admit their mistakes.  I thanked the students for showing courage and honesty in sharing.  I reminded them once again of the expectations for the academic spaces before I provided them with a short break to show good faith in their ownership and bravery as a class.

Reflecting on my quick reaction to something a fellow teacher shared with me, allowed me the chance to best support and help my students.  I probably came down too hard on them.  Yes, I needed to explain what rules had been violated, but I also needed to be mindful of their emotional and mental states at that moment.  They were stressed and tired from taking a test all day.  Their brains weren’t functioning at full capacity because of it.  As their prefrontal cortex hasn’t even developed yet, they were making decisions using a different portion of their brain.  They were actually over thinking their choices.  The student shouting was shouting, “Hurry up guys, we’re going to be late for the next test.”  Is that a bad thing to shout?  No, he was looking out for his peers.  He was trying to help his classmates get back to the classroom on time.  He was being thoughtful by saying that.  However, he did not think about the other students in the nearby classrooms that were in the middle of class.  The shouting might have distracted them.  So, while what my students did was not the best choice for the time and place, their hearts were in the right place.  Because I reflected on what I said to them as they started their next test, I was able to fix the situation a bit and help continue to build community within the classroom.  I gave the students a chance to own their mistakes and take responsibility for their actions.  If I were not in the regular habit of mentally reflecting, I might not have been able to rectify the mistake I made by lecturing them instead of trying to get to the heart of what happened.  I wasn’t willing to listen to them at first.  Therefore, I wasn’t respecting them.

Reflection is huge.  It has definitely made me a better educator and person.  Several years ago, I never used to think back on something and learn from the experience.  Once something was in the past, it stayed there.  If I remembered something really bad or good that happened, I might incorporate it into the next year’s lesson, but that was it.  I never really got better at teaching back then.  I remained stagnant.  Then, I learned to see the ripples in my teaching that were always there, but because I never looked, I just assumed my body of water was unchanged.  Being a reflective teacher has made me a better teacher for my students, and isn’t that what it’s all about?

Professional Development Summer Reading Part IV

If school is all about the process of learning in order to help students grow and develop into meaningful global citizens, then isn’t it our job as their teachers and guides on their learning journeys to help support and challenge them in any way possible?  So then, why do so many teachers refuse to retest or alternatively assess students?  Some students, like me for example, are not good at taking tests.  I get confused by the tricky multiple choice options and the short answer questions overwhelm me with the critical thinking involved on the spot.  But, when I was in school, that was my only option for demonstrating my learning.  How is that a process?  If I did poorly on the test, I received a low grade and thus did not showcase my understanding of the content covered.  Yet, I continued to matriculate onto the next grade each year.  How?  In retrospect, I wonder how effective my learning process was based on the teacher guides I had and grading systems with which I was faced.

Chapter 4 of Myron Dueck’s book entitled Grade Smarter Not Harder is all about the idea and philosophy around retesting or re-assessing students.  Most traditional schools and educators take the low road and refuse to retest students.  They view a test as a final game with no opportunity for a rematch.  Is life like that?  When my friend failed his driver’s education test, he was able to retake it a few weeks later and passed.  When I was once late to a class because of a meeting, I wasn’t fired.  I was given another chance to prove myself.  So then, why do we not provide our students with second chances to demonstrate their learning?  Dueck suggests just that in this chapter.  Students should be allowed to retake a test, part of a test, or redo an assessment as long as the redo process is more rigorous than the first time through.  Plus, the students need to somehow show that they have genuinely learned the concepts or skills involved.  If a student did not showcase his understanding of rates and ratios on a math exam, he should have to attend study sessions, create vocabulary cards, or make and take his own self-created exam to prepare for a test redo or retake.  This way, the students will really learn what they should have grasped the first time through.  Sometimes, tests prove challenging for students and don’t really allow them to demonstrate their learning of the content because they were so caught up in the format of the test or section.  Retesting allows for the teacher to change up the format of the test and questions, thus allowing students to demonstrate their true understanding of the concepts covered.

Some key points that Dueck brought up in Chapter 4 regarding retesting that I found intriguing…

  • Rick Stiggins, an educator, preaches the idea that all students should be able to answer three questions throughout the learning process: Where am I going?  Where am I now?  How can I close the gap?  This would be a great way to formatively assess students throughout a unit.  How might I incorporate this into my class?  I would have to reword the questions and use more student-friendly language.  I would also have to help students understand how to know what the end result of a unit is.  Using unit plans in the classroom might help the students see the entire process for each unit, and thus, allow them to know what the end result should look like for them.  I want to keep this idea of reflection in mind as I plan my units for next year.  I feel as though this process could be beneficial for my students.
  • The author utilizes Tracking Sheets in his class for the students.  When he hands back exams or projects, the students fill out a Tracking Sheet which lists the individual learning targets or graded objectives.  The students then denote their progress and outcomes on the sheet.  If they need to redo a section, they then explain what they will do to prepare before completing the re-testing phase.  Great idea.  This would help the students own their learning process.  It would also be a great entrance ticket to a redo.
  • Changing educational norms as they pertain to grading and assessment will require huge shifts in the culture of the school.  So many students who come from families that have always had great access to education, generally tend to have been exposed to traditional sorts of teaching and grading.  They feel as though this is how the game of school is played.  Listen to a teacher provide you with information on a new skill, topic, or concept, study, take a test, and repeat.  Getting students and families that come from this kind of world and society on board with objectives-based grading and assessment redos is no easy task.  It will take many conversations for some students and their families to understand the hows and whys of the changes happening in the classroom.  I dealt with a family like this during this past school year.  They didn’t understand why we didn’t have numerous tests on a weekly basis.  They also didn’t understand why we didn’t mark up student work with grades.  They come from an educational background that is based in the industrialization of education: School is like a big factory where every student graduates having learned the same stuff in the same manner.  That no longer works in our world.  If we want students to be effective global citizens, they need to be creative problem solvers and innovators.  Retesting is one way we can help bring about change in the classroom for our students.
  • The only problematic idea Dueck brought up in this chapter pertained to how he grades retests.  He blends or averages the scores together.  This seems to go against the concept of grading just what the students should have learned: The graded objectives.  Shouldn’t tests or assessments be graded on individual learning targets or objectives and not given an overall score?  How would one flat score tell students how they are progressing regarding the individual learning targets covered for a unit?  Tests or assessments should only be graded on the objectives covered.  For example, if the students have to create a forest field guidebook that lists and describes various flora and fauna samples found in their assigned plot in the forest, the final product should only be graded on the two objectives covered throughout the unit: Identify accurately, by common name using a guidebook, various flora and fauna samples in Cardigan’s ecosystem and construct a diagram that describes and illustrates the cycling of matter and flow of energy among the living and nonliving parts of an ecosystem.  The final projects should not be graded on neatness or organization if it is not a graded objective.  Therefore, they are not going to earn an overall score on the project as it is all about the process of learning.

I hope that as a school we are able to have open discussions and conversations about our grading, homework, and testing policies throughout this next year.  While I would love to have change come about right away and make all teachers utilize the objectives-based grading system, no longer grade or assess homework based on the letter grade, and allow for redos of tests and assessments, I know that I can’t expect monumental change in one year.  I do hope that my school administrative team will help educate teachers to see the value in moving away from a traditional way of teaching and grading students so that change will happen within three to five years across the board at my school.  Fingers crossed.

The Horrors of Multiple Choice Tests

As a student, I was a horrible test taker.  While I knew all most of the material and could utilize the skills covered, I struggled to demonstrate my mastery and understanding on various tests.  Perhaps it was test anxiety.  I was a nervous child and am a slightly worrisome adult; however, I wonder if it was more than just that which caused my low grades on in-class tests.  Most of the assessments I completed in school included multiple choice, true-false, fill-in-the-blank, or short answer questions.  Tests with those kind of questions required memorization of the material and not understanding.  No matter how well I understood the causes of WWII, if I didn’t memorize dates and names, I did poorly on the class exams.  This was the case throughout my years of schooling until I got to college.  In college, tests included essay questions and prompts that allowed me to think critically about the content learned and explain and analyze it.  That, I was good at.  It was a shame that it took so long for me to not dread and hate tests.  Perhaps I might have learned more or been a better, more effective student had I not been bombarded with poorly crafted exams and tests.  Being able to circle the correct bubble on a test or choose the right letter seems to me more about luck than an understanding of the material.

As a teacher, I find alternative ways to assess my students.  I use Project Based Learning, group work, research projects, activities, oral exams, and varied written assessments to be sure my students have mastered the objectives covered.  Learning is not about knowing a bunch of stuff, dates, or names, it’s about understanding the whys and hows of that knowledge.  What lead to the Punic Wars?  How does Darwin’s Theory of Evolution apply to modern day life?  I empower my students to look at the world through a critical lense and analyze what it’s all about.  I want them to ask questions and try to find answers.  I want them to dig and dig through information and use their peers as resources to learn and understand the material covered.  I will not bore or worry my students by giving them tests and quizzes in which memorization is required.  I want them to be able to think for themselves in order to become effective global citizens.  If my students know how to solve problems they encounter but forget the dates of WWI, they will still be successful students and citizens.  At the end of the day, information can be Googled or quickly researched online.  Learning and teaching are changing because of the grand advent of technology and instant access to information.  Students no longer need to transform their brains into encyclopedias as they can access them on their phones or iPads with the click of a button.

Now, I do wish that I never had to introduce my students to tests including multiple guess questions and the need for memorization; however, many of the teachers in the upper grades at my school utilize this form of assessment.  The math placement exams our students will complete at the start of their seventh grade year are nothing but multiple choice.  If I didn’t at least introduce my students to testing of this nature and allow them to see and practice completing tests like this, I would be doing them a disservice as their teacher.  I need to fully prepare my students for the rigors of their future years of schooling.  While I want them to be critical thinkers and creative problem solvers, I want them to feel as though they can tackle any problem thrown their way, including multiple guess tests.  So to do this, during the final term of the academic year, we sprinkle in some assessments that include memorization and multiple guess questions.  We also are very clear with the students, “You will need to know how to complete various tests you will see next year and beyond.  You will need to know how to approach multiple choice tests and how to memorize information effectively, which is why we are having you complete various assessments throughout the spring term.”  While I’m not a fan and nor are my students, it is a necessary evil.  One day, I’m hopeful that the education leaders of our world will see the drawbacks and negative outcomes of standardized tests or tests that require memorization and rid schools of them.  Until that day, I must do what I can to equip my students with every skill possible.

Today in STEM class, I had the students complete a Math Placement Test, much like the one they will see in the fall at the start of their seventh grade year.  I want to be sure they understand how to approach multiple guess tests.  I also want to be sure they have gained the skills necessary to be an effective math student and problem solver.  Our final STEM unit of the year includes a math component in which they will fill in any gaps or holes they may have in their understanding of the content covered.  Stress and anxiety filled the room as soon as I handed out the assessment, which included only 30 multiple choice questions.  They had numerous questions and were very nervous.  They didn’t seem to understand what the questions were asking them and they were confused by how the material was being covered.  They felt tricked and betrayed.  I empathized with them and told them that tests like these are very confusing and challenging, but they will allow us, as teachers, to help you hone your math skills prior to next year.  While this didn’t seem to help, the students persevered, for the most part.  One student ended up having a meltdown because he was so overwhelmed.  He said, “I know what the question is asking me but the tables and charts are confusing.  I don’t know what to do.”  This lead to tears and frustration.  So, I had him take a break and complete a lower level exam during our afternoon study hall.  This helped and he was much more calm and relaxed.  However, that shouldn’t have had to happen.  Students should never feel stressed or overly anxious in school.  They should feel safe and supported.  Yes, school and learning is challenging, but not anxiety-inducing.  There’s a difference.  Standardized-type tests produce stress within our students.  While they need to understand how to deal with them, I still don’t like the atmosphere that is fostered in the classroom when we proctor them.  For me, the big issue with horrible and awful tests including multiple guess questions is that unless the students show their work on the test paper, how do I know if they really understand the content covered?  They could have guessed or chosen an answer at random.  What if I have them solve a problem on paper instead?  What if I have them complete a project that applies the skills learned?  Wouldn’t those options be much more engaging and foster a sense of support and challenge amongst the students?  Isn’t that what teachers want for their students?  Genuine learning happens when students are relaxed cared for not when stress and anxiety fill their brains.

The Negative Impact of Standardized Testing (One of the Many)

As a student, I hated standardized testing I was forced to complete two to three times a year.  It was tedious and frustrating and didn’t seem to really test anything we had been learning in school.  I never understood the benefits or value in these mandated tests.  What do they prove?  That I know how to fill in bubbles?  I could guess on the entire test and still have a chance at scoring well on it.  That doesn’t seem to equate.  What’s the point then?  Data collection?  What does the data really prove?  It’s certainly not genuine nor reflective of what students are truly capable of.  It also doesn’t align with the curriculum used in the classroom, and so what is the test really assessing?  Perhaps it’s like that show Alias.  The test is really a screening method to recruit new members for the FBI and CIA.  That would be so cool.  If that’s the case, then bring on the test.  I want to have a chance to join the CIA and help keep my country safe.  I totally approve standardized testing if that’s its purpose, but something tells me that I am sorely mistaken.  So then, I stick by my first assertion, standardized testing is unnecessary and a waste of time.

Today is testing day at my school.  The students are completing a standardized test in place of classes today.  All morning long, nothing but testing.  While the students are hanging in there, you can see their frustration levels rising.  They are getting anxious, nervous, frustrated, and mentally tired.  They are beginning to hate testing and school.  If they begin to dislike what we are doing in the sixth grade classroom, it may be difficult to re engage them tomorrow because of the negative experiences they had today.  Is it worth it?  The data isn’t shared with the students nor is it used as a reflective piece for the faculty.  The test doesn’t even align with the curriculum or skills covered.  Then why are we having our students take this test?  Doesn’t it make more sense to move our curriculum forward while engaging the students in genuine learning instead of losing a day and the students’ excitement?  I say, Yes.

Yes, I see the value in being sure we are constantly monitoring what schools and teachers are doing to teach students, but is the form of standardized testing used by many schools around the country the most effective way to do this?  Wouldn’t it make more sense for schools or districts to create their own standardized test that aligns with what they are teaching so that they are assessing their students in a meaningful and relevant manner?  Doesn’t this kind of test make more sense?  So then why are we not moving in that direction?  Let’s build our own tests to collect our own data that works for us, our students, and our schools.  Let’s not succumb to the peer pressure placed on us by states and the government.  Effective teachers know how to teach and help students grow and develop.  So, instead of wasting millions of dollars to be sure our students are learning, let’s spend more money properly training and teaching teachers to effectively assess and monitor the learning of their students.  That makes so much more sense to me.  Perhaps I should run for president.  I’m too late now, but there’s always next time.

Thoughts on Summer Reading: Part 11

While I don’t consider myself a genuis in any subject nor did I do extremely well in school.  I did however, grow up to be resilient and creative.  I love finding unique solutions to problems and I never give up until the task has been accomplished.  I consider myself to be a bit of a work horse with a huge side of perfectionism.  Everything I do has to be done to the best of my ability and meet my expectations, which are very high.  I’m able to do this not because of the school I went to or what I was taught by my teachers, but I am who and what I am today because of my environment.  My parents raised me well and provided for me in a supportive yet strict manner.  I was told to do well in school and had to suffer consequences when I did not meet their expectations, which were high but attainable.  My parents raised me to be kind and patient.  No schooling could have possibly provided me with all this.  These character traits come from home life and family.  

In Amanda Ripley’s book The Smartest Kids in the World, she does propose that what makes kids so strong and academically driven to do well is family and home life.  I agree with that 100%.  It comes down to character.  If you have the ability to be smart and knowledgeable but suffer trauma, have a difficult family upbringing, or school and academics just aren’t focused on in your family, then you will not grow into a creative, smart, or driven individual.  Sure, external factors can help or hinder character building, but it does need to start at home.  On this point she is spot on.  Her stories and research support this claim in a meaningful and relevant manner that makes sense.  However, she keeps coming back to the idea that smart and knowledgeable is measured by a high-stakes standardized test.  Tests prove nothing.  I was a horrible test taker in school and did poorly on all standardized tests, but I was a member of my school’s branch of the National Honor Society.  Tests prove and tell nothing.  Just because a country scores high on the PISA test, doesn’t mean that they are the smartest country in the world.  Schools and teachers teach to the test in most countries and so while those students fare well on the standardized test, they end up being negatively impacted in the long run.  They don’t learn how to think critically, how to solve problems in unique ways, or how to work collaboratively.  They miss the skills that can help them grow into the next Steve Jobs or great innovator.  

So, while the author suggests that family life is where much character building takes place, I disagree with how that drive and intelligence needs to be measured.  Testing is a waste of our world’s time, money, and energy.  Instead of spending all this time on building and implimenting a national curriculum that helps prepare students for a high-stakes test, let’s build more innovative and open school buildings, let’s better prepare teachers to teach students how to think critically, be creative, and collaborate effectively, let’s spend that money helping parents learn how to best support their students, let’s take that time and money and put it into helping big cities fight crime and other sreious issues.  We have lots of needs in our world when it comes to educating our children, and testing is not one of them.

Thoughts on Standardized Testing

Standardized tests lead to a lack of creativity and perseverance within our students.  Students can no longer think critically about problems or overcome adversity because schools are preparing students for a world of bubble filling.  How often in life do you need to fill in bubbles with a #2 pencil?  Other than voting, rarely.  It’s not a skill our students need to have in order to be successful global citizens in the 21st century.  So, why do we continue to shove them down the figurative throats of our students?

Today, the sixth, seventh, and eighth graders at my school completed the ERB Tests during the academic morning.  With a few breaks sprinkled in, it took from 8:00 a.m. to noon.  Now, while I clearly don’t see the educational value in completing tests like this, I was curious what the students thought.  During the test, they seemed bored and complacent.  Many of the students struggled and were stressed out during the test.  So, I thought for sure that the students hated it and would have nothing but negative comments regarding the whole process.  Boy, was I wrong.

So, I interviewed several sixth, seventh, and eighth graders this afternoon following the testing.  Many of the students thought the test was boring but the most effective way to assess what students are learning at our school.  While they suggested some minor tweaks, they don’t think any major changes need to be generated.

  • “I think it was fine.  Testing should be done like this to test what students know.”
  • “The tests seemed long and excruciating.”
  • “I felt like it was pretty well organized.”
  • “It was long and boring.”
  • “I personally find it helpful to get testing over all at once.  It’s better than having it spread out over several days or weeks.”
  • “I think it’s a good way of testing what we know.”
  • “Most people were bored.  You can’t show everything you know by taking one test.”
  • “I feel like it’s a pretty good thing.”

When asked if there is a better, more effective way to assess what students know, most every student I questioned, seemed to think that standardized testing is the best way.  They provided some valuable feedback on how they would change the testing procedure, but overall, they seemed to think this method of assessment is valid.

  • “They should break the test up into smaller sections over the course of several days.”
  • “I felt pretty uncomfortable sitting so close to someone during the test.  I think next time there should be only one person per table.”
  • “The majority of the students had too much time to wait between tests.  Instead of dividing the test up, combine sections so that students who work faster can move ahead.”
  • “I don’t think there is a much better way to test students because teachers still need to know what the students know.”
  • “I think they need to create a more fun way to test the students like with a video game where when you answer a question correctly, you advance to the next level.”
  • “I feel like a lot of students are intimidated by standardized tests.  Maybe the test makers could create them in a tricky way so that the students didn’t know they were being tested.  Maybe like a Jeopardy game some game with a prize.”
  • “Maybe if they split the testing up into more days or ask fewer questions it would be better because students would then have more time to relax instead of just cramming it all into a couple of hours.”
  • “As a student, I don’t want any tests.  Homework can do that.  Teachers can assign take-home tests so that students have unlimited time to complete them.”
  • “In my class, many people didn’t care about the test since it wasn’t graded.  They didn’t take it seriously and just guessed.”
  • “Because students are in different levels of math, there needs to be different math tests for students based on the class they are in.”

Following these interviews I was a bit perplexed.  Even though most of the students seemed disengaged and bored during the test, most students seem to think it’s an effective way to assess students.  Why?  Are they just so used to standardized testing that they know nothing else?  What about projects or hands-on work?  While I disagree with standardized testing for many reasons, I wonder why the students agree with it.  What is happening in classrooms around the globe?  Why are our students so comfortable with testing but can’t seem to solve problems in innovative ways or overcome adversity?  Our educational system needs an overhaul.  We need less testing and more doing.