This Month’s Focus
Our focus this month turns to state testing. Testing occurs each spring, but for many educators testing feels particularly important at this stage of the pandemic—we all want to know if students are making critical learning gains. In this leadership blog post, George D. Galindo shares practical advice for school and district leaders to set teachers and students up for success.
Leading Change in Assessment Preparation
If you’re leading a shift from traditional test-preparation practices to updating your practices with Wit & Wisdom®, I encourage you to reflect with a Keep, Stop, Start chart. I often use this tool to help leaders reflect on their current practices that work well (keep), their practices that are not evidence based or effective (stop), and new practices that may benefit teachers and students (start).
Keep Teaching the Curriculum
Congratulations—you are on the path to success! As a Wit & Wisdom leader, you have invested in a high-quality, knowledge-building curriculum in the hands of students and teachers. This is the first step.
Now keep it up.
Doesn’t that sound simple? For years, though, I’ve witnessed leaders stop high-quality instruction to start test preparation. Some offered “boot camps” that prioritized students reading test-like passages and responding to multiple-choice items. Teachers then tracked students’ data and monitored their progress on skills and standards. Leaders and teachers engaged in data-driven conversations and made plans for students based on their challenges with specific standards. Teachers then provided differentiated skill-specific practice by helping students make inferences, for example, or find the main idea. Unfortunately, this effort rarely made a difference.
What does make a difference?
- Continuing to build students’ knowledge.
- Engaging students in complex texts.
- Explicitly teaching vocabulary.
- Engaging students in meaningful discussion about texts.
- Prompting students to write in response to texts.
Everything that has been carefully designed for students in Wit & Wisdom is what they need to build their knowledge and skills before the state assessment. Educators can keep teaching the curriculum with confidence that they are meeting students’ needs.
Stop Analyzing Assessment Data by Questions, Skills, and Standards
I’ve attended many data meetings throughout my time as a teacher and leader. Until recently, teachers typically analyzed reading tests by skills or standards. When I was a teacher, my school’s leader required teachers to analyze questions on interim assessments by standard. So I analyzed all the main-idea questions, for example, and made instructional decisions about how to support the students who did not perform well on this standard moving forward. We mistakenly assumed that the students who missed these questions just needed more practice identifying the main idea in additional passages. Identifying the main idea, however, relies on a student’s ability to use their knowledge of the topic, including strong vocabulary knowledge, to make enough sense of the passage to determine what it’s mostly about. A student who doesn’t know much about a topic will struggle with the main idea, but the same student might identify the main idea easily in a passage about a familiar topic. Attempting to analyze any isolated comprehension skill on a reading assessment fails to illuminate why a student did not perform well.
The relationship between knowledge and reading comprehension is well established—if you’d like to read more about this, I’ve suggested several publications at the end of this article.
I’d like to also suggest that knowledge and text complexity should be where we shift our focus when we need to analyze and respond to students’ test performance. When I previously worked for a school district, I facilitated unpacking an interim test passage for a group of our school leaders to understand what made the assessment passage complex for our students. We posed ourselves questions such as these:
- What do you notice about this passage?
- What might students wonder?
- How is this passage organized?
- What’s happening in this text?
Do these questions sound familiar? For Wit & Wisdom educators, the questions are recognizable as part of the Wonder and Organize Content Stages. After wondering and organizing, we moved forward with our analysis, revealing places where students may have been challenged by complex sentence structures, unfamiliar vocabulary, or a lack of knowledge. By the end of our time together, we could see that providing more multiple-choice questions with a variety of passages wouldn’t help students build comprehension skills. Instead, building a strong base of foundational knowledge through teaching Wit & Wisdom would better prepare our students for the rigor of the state test. Because students would be expected to have background knowledge on a variety of topics, we also concluded that we should prioritize other content areas, such as science and social studies, especially in elementary school.
There’s another good reason for all leaders to shift data-driven conversations with teachers to conversations about knowledge, vocabulary, and text complexity—assessments are shifting. Louisiana has been a leader in this work, but my home state of Texas is also making strides to incorporate cross-curricular knowledge into the passages on our state reading test, starting next school year. The isolated comprehension skills approach to reading instruction and assessment is ineffective—and test makers know this.
Start Preparing Students for the Testing Environment
Students benefit from explicit preparation with their state’s test format. They should know what they will encounter. How many testing sessions will they complete: one long, multi-hour session or multiple smaller sessions spread across several days? Will they take the test on paper or by computer? If students are being tested online, have they practiced reading with digital annotation and note-taking tools? Will students write in response to a text or a stand-alone prompt?
You don’t have to stop teaching the curriculum to do this kind of test preparation. Instead, consider these suggestions:
- Use Wit & Wisdom Affirm® to provide computer-based assessment practice to students with the assessments from Wit & Wisdom.
- Teach students to use the Content Stages as a tool for reading and analyzing passages from the state test.
- Pre-teach the vocabulary and language of typical directions from the state test. Incorporate that vocabulary and language into instruction or highlight it when it makes sense to do so.
- Emphasize the importance of reading closely.
- Administer the Wit & Wisdom Question Sets for additional practice with multiple-choice item formats.
- Engage your staff in professional learning—the virtual Testing and Wit & Wisdom session helps teachers understand why and how instructional practices regarding test preparation must shift.
Despite the anxiety you feel about state tests this year, I encourage you to keep teaching the curriculum, stop analyzing data by questions and standards, and start preparing students for the testing environment. It might require a shift in testing culture, but you can lead meaningful change that positively affects the bottom line—student learning.
More on Our Blog
- Korbey, Holly. “Is it Time to Drop ‘Finding the Main Idea’ and Teach Reading in a New Way?” Edutopia, 28 July 2020.
- Hirsch, E.D., and Robert Pondiscio. “There’s No Such Thing as a Reading Test.” The American Prospect, 14 June 2010.
- Wattenburg, Ruth. “A knowledge-rich curriculum is the best prep for Common Core reading tests.” Thomas B. Fordham Institute, 2 Nov 2016.
- Wexler, Natalie. “Can We Measure Reading Comprehension Separately from Knowledge?” Forbes, 11 Mar 2021.
- Willingham, Daniel T. “How Knowledge Helps: It Speeds and Strengthens Reading Comprehension, Learning—and Thinking.” American Educator, Spring 2006.
- Melissa & Lori Love Literacy, episode 35: Reading assessments NEED an upgrade!
- Melissa & Lori Love Literacy, episode 37: Meredith Liben and Sue Pimentel on the Standards, Assessment, and Data
George D. Galindo
George D. Galindo currently serves as an implementation leader for Great Minds and as a part-time lecturer in the College of Education and P–16 Integration at The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, teaching undergraduate courses in the university’s teacher preparation and certification program. Previously, George worked as a school and district leader to support student academic growth and achievement through curriculum and assessment design, implementation support, instructional coaching, and professional development. George is currently a doctoral candidate in the School of Education at Baylor University.