Test Prep Can Be Counterproductive
I got caught in a trap last week.
I was lucky to be able to attend a half-day staff inservice by a wonderful presenter who came to visit our school. The topic was standardized test writing, and I was interested in what she had to say.
Two hours later, my head was crammed so full it was about to explode. I was completely overwhelmed.
We discussed and learned about so many different kinds of open-response test questions that my mind was struggling to keep up. After introducing each type, she said, “Okay, turn-and-talk with your partner and tell them what you have done to prepare students for this type of question.” Often, I could say very little. I felt like I must have been cheating my students out of something they should have been getting.
Now, a few days have passed, and I’ve been able to calm down and reflect. I’ve thought about whether we should have been repeatedly practicing these open-response questions my students are likely to see on standardized tests this spring. Am I failing them?
The short answer I came up with: No.
The long answer: If I had spent endless hours practicing test responses, my students would perform worse on the standardized tests. How is this possible? Consider the hours and hours which would have to be spent to prepare students for every conceivable type of test question. Instead, I choose to devote that time to self-selected reading, real reading that develops life-long readers who enjoy books. I choose to devote that time to minilessons that teach skills and strategies real readers will use for their entire lives, how to infer big ideas, how to notice and note important events, how to monitor understanding and fix it if needed. I choose to devote that time to conferences with individuals and groups, getting to know them as readers and finding the ways to help them grow.
If I spent all that time doing test-prep activities, my students would not be advancing as readers. And readers who can’t read the reading passages on the test won’t be able to answer the questions regardless of the number of times they practiced! Students who can read, write, and think effectively will do just fine on any test, standardized or not.
Now, we will spend some time looking at the formats of some of these questions in the upcoming weeks. Students need to know how to play the standardized testing game. However, we will continue to sink the majority of our time into authentic reading and writing tasks because they are what matter. When my students look back on their fourth-grade year, they are not going to remember the right way to answer a constructed response question, but they will remember the amazing book series they read, the persuasive letter they sent out into the world, and blog comments they received from across the country.
Again, seeing the format of a standardized test can be helpful. But spending excessive amounts of time preparing for every test possibility steals valuable minutes students could be using to blossom as readers and writers.