Preparing for Standardized Tests
Standardized tests are a unique text genre, and they require readers and writers to do different things than they would normally, so teachers can’t assume that students already know how to take reading tests. It’s essential that teachers prepare students to take high-stakes tests without abandoning a balanced approach to instruction that’s aligned to state standards (Calkins, Montgomery, & Santman, 1998). Greene and Melton (2007) agree; they maintain that teachers must prepare students for high-stakes tests without sacrificing their instructional program. Unfortunately, with the pressure to raise test scores, some teachers are having students take more multiple-choice tests while writing fewer essays and creating fewer projects.
Hollingworth (2007) recommends these five ways to prepare students for high-stakes tests without sacrificing the instructional program:
- Teachers check that their state’s curriculum standards align with their instructional program and make any needed adjustments to ensure that they’re teaching what’s going to be on the test.
- Teachers set goals with students and use informal assessments to regularly monitor their progress.
- Teachers actively engage students in authentic literacy activities so that they become capable readers and writers.
- Teachers explain the purpose of the tests and how the results will be used, without making students anxious.
- Teachers stick with a balanced approach that combines explicit instruction and authentic application.
Other researchers advise that in addition to these recommendations, teachers prepare students to take standardized tests by teaching them how to read and answer test items and having them take practice tests to hone their test-taking strategies (McCabe, 2003). Preparing for tests involves explaining their purpose, examining the genre and format of multiple-choice tests, teaching the formal language of tests and test-taking strategies, and providing opportunities for students to take practice tests; and these lessons should be folded into the existing instructional program, not replace it. Greene and Melton (2007) organized test preparation into minilessons that they taught as part of reading workshop.
The Genre of Standardized Tests
Students need opportunities to examine old test forms to learn about the genre of standardized tests and how test questions are formatted. They’ll notice that tests look different than other texts they’ve read; they’re typically printed in black and white, the text is dense, and few illustrations are included. Sometimes words, phrases, and lines in the text are numbered, bolded, or underlined. Through this exploration, students begin to think about what makes one type of text harder to read than others, and with practice, they get used to how tests are formatted so that they’re better able to read them.
The Language of Testing
Standardized reading tests use formal language that’s unfamiliar to many students. For example, some tests use the word passage instead of text and author’s intent instead of main idea. Test makers also use locate, except, theme, reveal, inform, reason, in order to, provide suspense, and other words that students may not understand. Greene and Melton (2007) call the language of testing “test talk” and explain that “students are helpless on standardized reading tests if they can’t decipher test talk” (p. 8). Students need help understanding test talk so that high-stakes tests really measure what they know.
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