Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Ready, Set, STAAR

Testing season has officially begun. The first administration of STAAR is right around the corner, and it’s understandable that we are now (as opposed to all year long) spending time preparing for it.  I think of this time of year as equivalent to when runners train for a marathon or any kind of race. Their training for months/weeks prior to the race involves running, of course, but at some point closer to actual race day, they need to start studying the specific trail or course they will be running. Where will the water spots be? Where are the hills? The answers to these questions affect how they prepare for race day.  The same is true of testing. By understanding the structure and content of the test, students can make better decisions about how to manage their time, manage their brain power, stay focused, and navigate the test.

In recent weeks, I have been working with teachers on doing some “testing as a genre” mini-lessons where we teach students about the actual test so that they can plan how to adapt the reading and writing skills they have been using all year to the unique genre of test reading and test writing...specifically STAAR reading and writing. As you prepare your students for the upcoming test, I wanted to share some activities to help your students become empowered test-takers as the day of the race draws near.

One thing I like to do before beginning the “testing as a genre” mini-lessons is to see what students know and wonder about STAAR.  I do a simple, K-W-L activity and have students write down everything they know (or have heard) about STAAR and everything they wonder or want to know.  What they write is pretty enlightening.  Simple things like how many questions should be on the test should not be a mystery.  The state provides resources like the test design schematic and blueprints that let us know how many questions will be on the test, how many possible passages, genres, and even a breakdown of how many questions for different types of reading, revising, and editing.  Give students this information.  Have them think through how they might approach the test. Will they read the long passages first or start with the short ones?  They need to be intentional.  The  way they approach a test depends on what they know about themselves as test-takers, so everyone may take a different approach. The more information they have about the test, the more intentional they can be with their approach to it.

Strategies Toolbox
Now, when I’m talking strategies, I’m not talking about a mnemonic device.  I’m talking about helping students come up with intentional tools for combatting their unique struggles. To be a good test taker, you have to have a set of strategies that work for you.  Everyone is different, so your students’ strategies will be different, too.  If there are some aspects of test-taking that are difficult for a student, it may help to ask others what strategies they use.   Does one student get nervous and over-think every question?  Maybe there is another student who has found a way to fight that….get them talking to each other.  What about if you have taught students to capture their thinking all year, and they have been doing it beautifully on sticky notes and paper, but now they are going to take an online test. While hopefully, they have also been practicing with online tests throughout the year, they may have had more practice with traditional paper/pencil testing or reading.  Why not ask them how they can transfer the things that work for them on paper and pencil to this new situation of online?  Let them come up with some strategies for transferring what helps them. We don’t always have to be the ones to come up with the answer of what to do.

Testing is a unique genre that has a vocabulary all its own.  A test is designed to assess learning, so it will use academic words and words that are directly related to what should have been learned (content).  It is important to be aware of academic and content language when reading a test. Hopefully, your students have built the habit of becoming word collectors throughout the year. As they have read books, they (hopefully) have been encouraged to collect any new, interesting, or unfamiliar words in their reading notebooks.  Have them do the same thing with the test.  Show them the standards that are assessed and the types of questions that assess those standards.  Do they notice any similarities or note anything interesting about the wording used to assess the standard?  In looking at some questions related to theme, we noticed that the words message, lesson, idea, and theme all appeared.  That might turn into a “theme” word list.  You might collect words from answer choices that are unfamiliar. After all, this is where the vocabulary of the test sometimes hinders our students. There is no context to use in many of the answer choices, and most of the words are very sophisticated, academic words (ex., refute, illustrate).  In these cases, a dictionary may or may not offer much help either. Without context, it’s hard to apply the dictionary definition.  The academic vocabulary (particularly verbs) from the test can be used to help students discuss their reading by incorporating it into language frames such as-

“The author uses _____to ____(emphasize, demonstrate, illustrate…)______________. “

I’d love to hear other ideas and other ways that you help your students.  If you’d like more information about teaching testing as a genre, I recommend the book Putting Thinking to the Test by Lori Conrad, Missy Matthews, Cheryl Zimmerman, and Patrick Allen.

Resources related to STAAR can be found here: https://tea.texas.gov/student.assessment/staar/