As teachers, our philosophies, ideas, and technology in the classroom are constantly evolving. When you stick with the same ideas without reflection is when you no longer grow as an educator. For me, there is no better example of this than preparing for the end-of-the-year standardized tests in math.
Almost 20 years ago, high-stakes tests were introduced in my state. You could feel the tension that I inadvertently created in the classroom to get the students ready for the test. Regular instruction would end at the beginning of April so that we would have a solid six weeks of test prep for the late-May exam. We would do daily practice tests. I would share strategies as to how to earn partial points on the open response questions, even if students did not know how to solve the problem. My approach was successful from the standpoint that I had the highest scores within my district, but it came at a price.
Students who had enjoyed math class throughout the year started to dislike coming into my classroom. By shifting my instruction and approach so drastically, I inadvertently created a high-pressure, impersonal work culture within my class, with little room for the types of engaging and authentic learning experiences we had been sharing together all year. Students who had called me their favorite teacher and greet me with a fist bump each morning would no longer seek me out for a conversation or share with me events in their life that were important to them.
Summative standardized assessments do not appear to be going away and are deemed important barometers for student learning by national leaders. This is not within our control as teachers. However, the approach that is taken in the classroom is within our control. Here are some suggestions as we come upon testing season this spring.
Keep the Math Fun and Engaging
There is nothing worse for a student than to be inundated with constant practice tests during the weeks or months leading up to the test. If students are interested and engaged in the material, learning will most likely happen. If they are memorizing and cramming for this test, conceptual understanding is not going to occur. However, it is important for students to be exposed to the testing format, online or paper and pencil. Students should know the format and types of questions coming. My suggestion would be to spend one period a week leading up to the test to talk about and practice for the assessment.
Keep the Stress Low
Students’ anxiety over testing is higher now than ever before. Many of the students take four or more hours to complete a 60-minute standardized assessment. They feel the pressure from their teacher, principal, and parents. Having conversations with the class and/or individual students about the test, encouraging them to do their best, and telling them not to stress about it is very important. If possible, have individual meetings with each student to review their work, as well as previous standardized tests, during the year. Determine areas of focus and need for each student. Some students might be weak in geometry, while others struggle with short-answer questions. Talk about this with them and come up with a plan for success.
Focus on the Standards
The standardized test is a reflection of knowledge created by the state standards, whatever they might be. If you cover the standards thoroughly and in detail, the students should do well. If time does not allow for a thorough study of all standards, you can focus on the power or priority standards. It should be the standards, not the curriculum, that guide your planning and instruction. Review all of the state standards and make sure that everything is covered that needs to be. Following this will not yield any content surprises for the students and the instruction can stay fresh and engaging.
As we move to the annual testing season this spring, I suggest that you just focus on good math instruction. You do not need to do anything radically different to prepare your students. In fact, if you do, then you become the teacher that I was 20 years ago. Just be the extraordinary teacher of math that you already are.