I can’t believe that spring break is a few short weeks away. In Texas, spring break is code for PANIC, testing is right around the corner. At the end of March, 5th grade readers and 4th grade writers across our state will take the STAAR test to assess their abilities…or their teacher’s abilities. I see it every year, around the 1st of February, teachers begin going into panic mode. Many teachers seem to, about this time of year, begin abandoning the workshop model in their classrooms and leaning instead to “passages” with testing type questions attached. I think the logic is that students need to see the “format”. I have also heard teachers say that it gives supposed data that is “real” for the test. I guess that might be somewhat true, but I wonder HOW IS IT WORKING for you? Are you showing growth when you pull out those worksheet passages OR did you show more growth when you let readers be readers and writers be writers? Does drilling the testing format daily really help? It did not help in my classroom – that I assure you. However, there were several other things that did help.
One of the most effective testing prep strategies that worked for me was really beefing up my reading and conferring time. We all agree that being a reader helps our writing and writers are more aware of their reading – right? Well, there were times in my classroom when I might focus or extend time on one or the other. I never abandoned either, but certainly focused at times more on one. As you approach “the test” try to focus a little more time on that subject. For example if you are a 5th grade reading teacher, you might want to look at your schedule for the upcoming weeks. How could you extended your reading time in class? You might want to try and add 5 additional minutes each week to your IDR (independent reading time) so that you have extra time for conferring and/or strategy groups. Yes, this might involve shortening a regular routine. Think of it this way, as you build in one area (reading), you are still strengthening in the other content (writing).
With strategy groups and conferencing in mind, take a hard look at your previous conferring notes with an analytical mind. You can also take a look at any other data you have. Ask others to confirm or challenge your thoughts about the guidance your students need. Plan a meeting with your coach, your AP or your principal to do the same. I have even gone as far as discussing ideas with my non teacher friends (names need to be anonymous for this) to get a very outside of the box opinion. I guess my point is, challenge what you are doing in your classroom by collaborating with those around you. Ask your campus coach if you can spend a day at planning just doing this – looking and planning for interventions BEFORE they take the test. After you have all of this information, you can look at your groups, what additional mini lessons you need, and especially what results you think you might have ahead of you. Our 3rd grade team has been looking long and hard at their data and realized that their focus needs to be summarizing, synthesizing and vocabulary. Those are big bites to chew. We can’t expect for all students to be ready to work on these three areas, but at least we have some goals that we know we can work towards. If a students is working towards summarizing, let’s start by just writing about each chapter by reflecting and pausing. If we are working on synthesizing, you can pull in more read alouds and push comparisons of their IDR books.
In our district we have a period of time that varies from campus to campus called EXTENDED LEARNING. This 30-60 minute time period (on our campus it is 60 minutes) is a time for extension of learning and interventions. As test prep closes in, take a step back from your ELT and analyze what you are doing during this time period. It is giving you the most bang for your buck? Are you servicing all of your students during this time? If not meet with your partners and work out this issue. For 4th grade writing teachers, your ELT period should be conferring, strategy groups, and other writing focused activities based on the needs of your writers. The same is true for 5th grade reading teachers. Don’t let your ELT become a “I need a break” period or “I need to grade papers” period. Utilize it to the fullest.
The last suggestion is to talk with your students.  Students’ mindset is a key factor that helps make our students successful. Have you ever just sat down and talked to them about what happens when they are taking a test? What are their thoughts or frustrations about testing? Help your students realize that it is just a test, but it is part of life. Give them real world strategies to deal with the anxiety or tension. I found showing progress on the district level assessments helped a great deal. If you can set goals with your students that are reachable, that stimulates drive and desire to try. Find something to celebrate a victory with each one your students so they see a need to move forward. At the beginning of the year I had a little boy testing with me in a small group. He flew through the test in about 15 minutes, only circling and bubbling and never reading any of the stories. When I spoke with him afterwards I asked why he did that? His response was, “I am going to fail anyway so why should I even try?”. Wow! That broke my heart. Since then he is starting to see improvement, and the last time he took a district test he actually read the passages. He still failed, but he is making progress because he has started to see a reason to try.

If what you are currently doing works and your students are ALL showing progress and growth, then I agree 100% you should not make any changes to what you are doing. However, I have yet to meet a teacher who can state that they don’t need any help with their students and standardized testing. I hope you take a step back this year, open your mind and try pushing forward with workshop as testing approaches. I hope you step outside your comfort zone and try something that will definitely bring comfort.

Tracy Kotlar


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