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Saturday, October 15, 2011

Test Prep That Makes Sense

Thanks to Lester Laminack's Facebook page for this cartoon

While presenting at the New England Reading Association conference a few weeks back, a colleague of mine and I facilitated a seminar on the power of using mentor texts in your writing workshop (click here for a link to our handouts from the session).  We shared ideas for minilessons, our favorite mentor texts for various genre studies and classroom photos to support an effective and engaging writing workshop.  We had a wonderful turnout (about 130 educators from across the east coast attended the session!), tremendous enthusiasm and tons of thoughtful questions.  Yet, inevitably as I have been asked at other conferences across the nation, THE question regarding text preparation came up towards the end of the session.  It goes something like this...

"I love your ideas and I want to use this style of writing instruction in my classroom because I think it's great and I know my students will love it.  But (wait for it....) how do I explain to my principal how this ties into test preparation and how this will get our scores up?". 

And as I have stated, time and time again, from state to state, grade level to grade level, the answer is as follows- Good writing instruction is test preparation.  Strategic instruction is test preparation.  Teaching the stages of the writing process is test preparation. Explaining audience and purpose is test preparation.  Having students build their writing stamina is test preparation. 

When we teach students various strategies to make their writing more clear, more interesting, more focused and more organized we are teaching them how to become better writers- not just for standardized tests...but for LIFE. 

When I began teaching in the workshop style in my fourth grade classroom during the time when No Child Left Behind was just targeting 4th and 8th grade students (and teachers!), my students' scores went up on the New York State ELA exam.  It wasn't because I was practicing in more coach books or "doing" more test preparation.  It was because my students were becoming more effective, more efficient and more engaged writers.  Of course, the strategies, techniques and tools they had picked up along the way would help them during these 3 days. 

You see, they were being "prepped" the whole year but in a way that made sense.  In a way that actually made them feel empowered and excited.  They believed that they were WRITERS.  And because they had learned what audience and purpose was, they did better.  Because they understood that a great opening or meaningful closing could make a "scorer" feel something after reading 200 papers, they did better.  Because they understood how to plan before they drafted, they did better.  Because they understood the importance of editing their work, they did better.  They knew the tools and reasons that real writers used and THAT is what, "made their scores go up". 

I am hoping for more time in the near future so I can put together a more formal "Writing for Testing Genre" unit of study.  I welcome your experiences and thoughts on the topic.