We Think We Need Student Test Prep Materials
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I was a third grade teacher when Kaplan first created elementary school test prep materials. We received thick workbooks and even thicker teacher additions. Kaplan built their product on the principles that work with SAT prep: predict and eliminate.
When the system was adapted for third graders it was way over their heads and not connected to the curriculum. I taught a classroom full of struggling readers and not only was it too much text, but they used text in an obtuse way to third graders. Parts of passages were often blacked out to help students predict, but it only confused my students. We dedicated a lot of time on strategies to improve outcomes on a standardized test, and it did not work very well.
To be fair to Kaplan, they only created the product that they knew how to create. Today’s program looks nothing like it did back then. We now know much more about preparing students for assessments. The test prep materials are much better, not because the strategies are more useful, but because they are filled with correctly leveled passages and mathematical problem sets by standard.
We Think it is All About the Standards
If we were to look at a school’s data with the objective of finding out which standards students need the most help on we will often discover something different. The underlying issue in standardized test performance is rarely the standard, but rather a skills issue or passage issue. I touched on this is Why Data Can’t Drive Instruction.
Below is an example of what typical state math test data looks like when both multiple choice and constructed response questions are included. The higher blue bars represent the average percent of correct multiple-choice answers. The lower grey bar represents the average percent correct of the constructed response questions.
Many schools continue to over analyze the results of the multiple-choice questions to determine which standards they should prioritize. However, often the root cause of incorrect responses is that students don’t, or can’t, show their mathematical thinking on the test.
We overlook how students communicate understanding in mathematics.
Communicating Understanding in Mathematics
We can both teach students in a meaningful way and get them to do better on standardized tests. It is a myth that improving student outcomes requires we buy test prep materials and teach every lesson out of a workbook.
This is a problem from the 2016 NY State 7th grade math test. It aligns to standard CCSS.7.G.B.4. Most of our students, and many teachers, will focus on producing the correct answer, but instead we need to focus on communicating mathematical understanding.
This is an essay question. A single sentence is not an essay in the same way a single number is not an answer to this question.
Let us not focus on the right answer or how to solve this problem, but instead let us look at a sample answer of a student who received full credit and what work they included.
This student writes down what they know in the problem.
They understand “blueprint” and “scale” so they understand they need to convert the units of blueprint.
They convert the diameter to a radius for their formula.
They enter in the new information into their formula, calculate, round to the nearest 10th, and label with units. (Students can use calculators: important because to receive full credit a student must round at the end)
For each step required, they demonstrated understanding. We can understand all their thinking that went into this problem and they therefore received full credit.
We constantly need to ask ourselves are we setting the same expectations out of our students for all the problems we solve in a classroom. Doing one or two problems with the thoroughness of this problem during a lesson is worth far more than a double-sided worksheet. If our students can identify how each piece of their work relates to the problem, then we have done better than just prepare them for a test.
Change Your Instructional Focus
With access to problems and reading passages, as well as some assessment that gives you data on your students, your next step should focus entirely on making sure students communicate their thinking.
Choose problems and passages worth engaging and ensure your students write out in detail their thought process. We should think more about how students respond than if they calculate the right answer.
This will have far greater impact on test performance and improve instruction.