As a New York State educator, my students' exams are just around the corner. At the end of March, my seventh grade ELA students will spend three days reading and answering multiple choice questions, writing constructed response answers, and planning and writing two extended response essays.
In my first few years of preparing kids for state exams, I did a lot more direct test preparation the month leading into the exam. Now, I do no more than two weeks of review. This year, to be exact, I have test preparation activities narrowed down to eight days.
Not only do I try to keep direct test prep to a minimum, I make sure that all the test prep we do is meaningful beyond the exam. After all, eight days is still a lot of instructional time, and I want to make sure that those eight days are spent preparing my students for high school, college, and beyond, not just their seventh grade testing.
Even though I've found myself doing less and less direct test prep every year, I've seen my students' grades go higher and higher. Why? Because throughout the year, everything we
do prepares them.
Standards Based Learning Targets
I start every lesson with a standards based learning target. Learning targets are the Common Core State Standards rewritten in student friendly language as an "I will" or an "I can" statement (ex. I can cite evidence to support my claim).
Writing down the learning target is our bellringer. Students know that when they come into class, they retrieve their English binder, which is stored in the back of our classroom, they open to their learning target worksheet, and they copy the learning target for the day. Students circle academic vocabulary and challenging words they notice in the target.
When we review the learning target, we define the academic vocabulary together. Throughout the year, students are learning academic vocabulary that is often repeated day to day, week to week in learning targets and later, on the state exam. Words like "cite," "analyze," "evidence," and "compelling" quickly become a part of student's daily vocabulary. After a short amount of time, these words are a permanent part of my students' vernacular.
When students encounter academic vocabulary in test questions, they know what to do because of our daily practice with learning targets. Beyond the test, students learn to set goals and self assess based on clear targets every day.
Exit tickets are a regular part of my students' ELA 7 lives. At least once a week, students are asked to complete and hand in an exit ticket based on the day's lesson. Exit tickets are modeled after constructed response questions and are grounded in the standards. I have found exit tickets to be especially useful in response to independent reading. When my students are all reading different novels, they can complete exit tickets modeled after constructed response questions about theme, character, symbolism, and other literary elements.
From the start of the school year, students have practice reading texts in class or for independent reading and responding in the form of a constructed response. Students use RIPPS as an acronym to guide their constructed response writing: Restate the question, provide an Inference, Proof, Proof, Summarize. RIPPS is our district's preferred acronym for teaching students constructed response writing because it helps students to meet all of the requirements outlined in the NYS 3-8 exam rubric for constructed responses.
Similar to our learning targets, using RIPPS also teaches students necessary academic vocabulary. Students know what an inference is and practice inferencing often. Students know what solid "proof" in their answers looks like. I model it in my writing, students practice it in their writing, and students even practice evaluating the proof in each other's writing. Students are expected to use quote sandwiches or specific paraphrasing/detail for each "proof." We practice this skill all year long. Not only does this practice prepare students for the exam, but it helps them to become organized, detailed writers. RIPPS is the perfect structure for any argument writing.
Extended Response Essay Writing
The Extended Response Essay on the New York State ELA exam for grades 3-8 follows a very specific structure. Every essay question is formatted the same way. Students read passages, are given a question, and the question is followed by bullets outlining what must be included in the writing.
Almost every writing piece I give to my students is formatted this way. It's simple. It's effective. It's still meaningful beyond the test. I can give my students an argument writing, informational writing, or a reading response and format the assignment to look just like the extended response question they will encounter on the test. It sounds so rudimentary, but giving students the writing assignments I would normally assign, but formatted like the state exam essay, gives students confidence to tackle the writing because it is familiar to them.
In addition to formatting the question to look the same way, we also keep our writing strategies consistent for most forms of writing. I teach the students to use the essay question to help them formulate the claim. I model it. Students practice it. We refine the skill of intro writing together. Then, I teach students to use the bullets to guide the organization of their paragraphs. The essay question helps us formulate our claim. The bullets work as the outline of our body paragraphs. Students then develop their body paragraphs using RIPPS.
My students have grown so much as writers using RIPPS to build body paragraphs. They are so familiar with the RIPPS format from working on exit tickets, and now they use RIPPS as building blocks to elaborate on their ideas in writing pieces. Instead of weak, underdeveloped paragraphs, students have powerful, well-supported topic sentences. Not only does this make their writing better in general, but when test time comes around, students are prepared with all the tools they need to succeed.
Standards Based Grading
In my class, I employ standards-based grading. Standards-based grading is exactly what it sounds like (and will be the subject of a future blog post in itself!). I grade my students on their mastery of the standards: not on if their homework is late, not on their participation, not on their behaviors.
I grade on a five-point scale. Five is mastery. A three equates to "almost there." A student who's work earns a 1 "needs improvement." Anytime a student earns a score under five, they have the opportunity to retake or rewrite their assignment. This has been a huge game changer for student's learning and writing.
When a student writes an exit ticket or an extended response and does not reach mastery, they often rewrite their work. When they rewrite, they apply the feedback I've given them. They refine their use of RIPPS. There are students who struggled making a clear inference, and they mastered it through making mistakes and revising them. I have students who wrote beautiful clear answers, but their proof was not relevant enough to build a strong answer. Through revision and practice, they mastered the skill of finding relevant, meaningful evidence. My students polish their argument building and writing skills all year. All before the state exam.
All year, my students are refining the skills that make them successful on the state exam. It is so rewarding going into an exam knowing my students feel confident, comfortable, and familiar with what is expected of them. I love that test prep is infused in meaningful, authentic ELA curriculum. Even the brief direct prep we do is made more meaningful because students have experience applying the same skills in real world activities.
Testing can be a daunting time of year for both teachers and students, but it doesn't have to be. When your curriculum is grounded in standards and you give students strategies that make them better readers, writers, AND test takers, they have everything they need to succeed on the exam and, more importantly, beyond.