Test Prep Product Design
Many companies build products and systems to help students score higher on standardized tests. If you have ever used on of these products, you notice they all start to look the same after a while.
No matter how many pictures they add or scenarios they “design to engage students” they all seem sterile. Page after page teaches students about the test and not understanding the underlining concepts or engaging them in deep thinking.
Teachers and students spend all their time unpacking the design of the assessment. They pick out keywords and they underline and they circle. Choices get crossed out and students make predictions, but the thinking is extracted from the problem and instead focused on how the problem is constructed.
It can be done another way, but it requires some backwards thinking. Ironically, we must first look at how the test in constructed to prove why students engaged in authentic work will do better on a standardized assessment.
Below is a graph that shows the relationship between writing on the NY State US History Regents exam and the multiple-choice section.
The y-axis shows the total essay points a student can earn. The blue bars show the percentage of multiple choice questions a student must answer correctly to pass the Regents. For every 1 point a student earns on the essays the multiple choice becomes easier by about 4 to 5%.
This week in January students across NY State are taking Regents exams and there will be many students who just barely fail the test. Many of those students will need to pass an exam to graduate this spring. We can help them more by focusing on the writing.
Here is another way of looking at the same data. This is the conversion chart used to score the Regents. In yellow are all the passing scores.
I know many social studies teachers who use document based questions frequently in the classroom. Both the US History and Global Studies Regents are filled with document based questions in both the essay and multiple choice questions. Below is a sample task from the US History Regents from a prior exam.
Here I would rather offer that we validate the different type of analysis required of students in the social studies classroom. To help students improve on this type of assessment requires students to provide additional background knowledge, analyze each document within historical context, synthesize a connection, and write an organized essay.
In preparing students for this part of the exam teachers also prepare them for the multiple choice. Students can be engaged in difficult, critical thinking and still be prepared for standardized assessments.
Design Class Structures and Expectations Around The Exam
Teachers don’t need to compromise. They can support the real work by using the structure of the exam to validate practices we know are important. Here are some suggestions.
- Always Start with a Problem: To answer the hardest questions on standardized test students must rationalize and analyze content. They must problem solve. They can only do that if you allow them to practice thinking. Start lessons with posing a problem worth thinking about.
- Develop a Response Rubric: Use the guidelines for answering the hardest exam questions and the scoring rubric for the exam to build one or more classroom rubrics. Using the guidelines above for US History you could create a 4 category rubric and use it all year long.
- Adapt the Rubric to Every Response: This does not mean create a completely new rubric. This means that you constantly refer to the expectations of the rubric even when you focus on a small piece. One lesson might just be on citing relevant examples, but then refer to just that section of the rubric to have students support their response.
- Use Only Short and Extended Response questions: Almost all questions should require students write their answer and write using the clear expectations of your rubric. Here, less is more. If you use to give out ten questions in multiple choice then start giving out two questions with written responses. It is in the depth you require your students to answer that matters.
Problem Solving Across All Subjects
I will not include the conversion charts for the NY State English and Algebra exams, I will save them for another post, but I will add that students can pass either exam without answering a single multiple-choice questions. In both exams, the short and extended response sections provide enough points to pass and are the area’s most students struggle, especially in Algebra.
The examples below show how if students are successful at these tasks how they can succeed on the rest of the exam.
Take the hardest question of any exam and work backwards to create authentic assessments with detailed rubrics that require students to demonstrate their thinking.
On a boarder scale, that I want to explore on another day, schools should also look at how student thinking shifts among the subjects areas to define the foundations of curriculum.
Finally, work with colleagues to analyze the results of assessments, and plan together for future instruction. This can’t be done in isolation.
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