THIS MONTH’S FOCUS
Teachers of English language arts (ELA) know the complexity of their discipline. Reading comprehension is an internal cognitive process that teachers must make explicit. Comprehension requires content knowledge and integrated skills. Successful comprehension depends on the reader’s foundational reading skills, speaking skills, writing skills, vocabulary, and content knowledge.
Because teaching and learning in ELA are complex, so is assessment in ELA.
While it can be tempting to try to help students succeed by providing practice with a series of items on a specific skill, such as identifying the main idea, this practice will not prepare students for success in identifying the main idea of a complex passage on a different topic. Instead, research and experience indicate that the best way to prepare students for success on statewide and standardized tests is to teach them integrated ELA skills, deepen their vocabulary, and build their content knowledge.
Teachers can most effectively prepare students for assessment with a content-focused, integrated ELA curriculum. In this month’s post, we will explore how.
Imagine you are a Grade 4 student sitting down to the NAEP reading assessment. You read a passage and encounter this item:
In the last paragraph, what does Bob Brier mean by the phrase “to ‘read’ a mummy”?
- To understand the words written on a mummy
- To visit museum exhibitions about mummies
- To gather information by examining a mummy
- To make sense of stories about mummies
[National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) 2017 Grade 4 reading assessment item ID 2017-4R10 #8 RO69309, 5 Jan 2021, https://nces.ed.gov/NationsReportCard/nqt/.]
Consider for a moment: What would a Grade 4 student need to know to respond to this question correctly? What instruction would help this student respond correctly?
The item appears to be written to assess student understanding of non-literal language. But this item assesses more than basic vocabulary knowledge. To understand the assessment item and to respond correctly, students must do the following:
- Know specific words and understand how words work. Students must know that the word read has multiple meanings. Students who know the words phrase and paragraph may have an advantage over students who do not.
- Possess skills in the foundations of reading—phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency—in order to read the grade-level text.
- Comprehend the text to understand the phrase in context. To comprehend this text, students must have a mental framework for thinking about mummies—a topic that integrates history, science, and geography. Cognitive research shows that readers with more prior knowledge of a topic can process new ideas and details on the topic more easily.
- Sort important ideas and know which are less relevant or distracting. In the above example, students do not need to worry about who Bob Brier is—rather, they focus on what he means by reading a mummy.
Unlike in mathematics, where it is at least sometimes possible to isolate and assess for a single, specific skill, in English language arts, students’ performance on a single assessment item typically cannot provide data on a specific skill. Instead, it provides insight into their general reading and comprehension ability and content knowledge.
findings from experts and research
Research and the recommendations of experts provide guidance in how teachers prepare students for success with assessments and interpret test results.
Research from ACT shows that reading assessments do not distinguish well between students’ performance on items assessing specific skills (e.g., can students infer the main idea, define words in context, or identify text details?). Instead, assessments distinguish students based on comprehension more broadly and provide information on how well students work with complex texts. These assessments do not provide useful information on the types of questions students are able to answer. When we as teachers prepare students for assessments and try to gain meaning from results, we must look beyond question types and focus instead on students’ experience with complex texts and their knowledge of content. In fact, students’ ability to read and understand complex texts is the “clearest differentiator in reading between students who are likely to be ready for college and those who are not” (ACT).
Timothy Shanahan provides an overview of the challenge of effective test preparation in English language arts in this 2018 post from his blog:
[The] “theory”—and it is just a theory—is that one can raise reading scores through targeted teaching of particular comprehension skills. Teachers are to use the results of their state accountability tests to look for fine-grained weaknesses in reading achievement—or to try to identify which educational standards the kids aren’t meeting.
This idea makes sense, perhaps, in mathematics. If kids perform well on the addition and subtraction problems but screw up on the multiplication ones, then focusing more heavily on multiplication MIGHT make sense. …
Question types are not skills (e.g., main idea, supporting details, drawing conclusions, inferencing). In math, 3 × 9 is going to be 27 every doggone time. But the main idea of a short story? That is going to depend upon the content of the story and how the author constructed the tale. In other words, the answer is going to be different with each text.
Practicing skills is fine, but if what you are practicing is not repeatable, then it is not a skill.
If items do not test individual skills and instead assess general comprehension ability and content knowledge more broadly, then effective instruction and high-quality curriculum are essential for test success.
Data from the 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading assessment shows that students whose teachers reported placing quite a bit to a lot of emphasis on integrating and interpreting informational and literary texts outperformed other students—with a higher average reading score than the score of students of teachers who reported placing some emphasis or less (U.S. Department of Education).
Wattenberg (2016) emphasizes the role of content knowledge in successful ELA performance. With greater content knowledge, students understand how ideas in a passage logically connect. They can organize ideas and visualize content. They have a mental framework for thinking critically about content.
Think back to the opening assessment item example on the meaning of the phrase “read a mummy.” Students who know something about ancient Egypt and mummies have an advantage when they encounter this phrase in the last paragraph of the text. Students with this body of knowledge can more easily read and quickly comprehend the article, which includes content-area vocabulary, such as ancient, preserved, remains, Hatshepsut, pharaoh, tomb, and civilization, as it describes how mummies may help us solve modern medical mysteries.
Research and expert guidance recommend these test preparation approaches:
- Increase students’ base of content knowledge.
- Work with complex texts.
- Provide experience with both informational and literary texts.
- Integrate ELA skills.
- Include ongoing practice interpreting information from texts.
Wit & Wisdom provides all of these elements. It prepares students for statewide assessment—building their knowledge, vocabulary, and skills in an integrated way that sets them up to successfully read, analyze, and respond to statewide assessment passages and items.
Keep the following guidance in mind as you approach scheduled standardized or statewide assessments:
- Do not skip the curriculum for isolated test preparation.
- Ensure students do the heavy lifting needed for learning.
- Help students set goals for performance and self-assess their progress.
- Collaborate with colleagues.
Do not skip the curriculum for isolated test preparation. When engaging in test preparation, teachers may be tempted to look for quick fixes or test-taking strategies. However, research suggests that the best preparation for assessment success is strong instruction and a quality implementation of the curriculum.
To assess learning and progress, Wit & Wisdom assessments are an integral part of each module’s structure, providing teachers and students with important formative assessment information. Students complete daily Check for Understanding (CFU) assignments, and teachers analyze these for ongoing, informal assessment data to immediately address any gaps or needs. The Analyze section of each lesson provides evaluation guidance and next steps.
During standardized testing, students can rely on and apply the Wit & Wisdom approaches and processes they have learned and internalized, such as activating content knowledge, making connections, noticing and wondering with shorter sections of text, rereading to organize ideas, identifying text evidence, and using context clues and morphological cues to define unfamiliar words. Help students see how these Wit & Wisdom approaches and routines are transferable across contexts. When discussing upcoming standardized assessments, help students see how the work they have done with the curriculum will support their success on the assessment.
Students do benefit from some limited, focused test preparation designed to provide familiarity with item types, vocabulary, and formats. To offer practice with multiple-choice items, use the Grades 2–8 Question Sets—available at greatminds.org or through the Affirm platform. In addition, use the Tips for Test-Day Success listed below as appropriate to your context.
Ensure students do the heavy lifting needed for learning. For Wit & Wisdom to serve as effective test preparation, students must do the hard work of building the skills and knowledge base needed for success. This heavy lifting may require students to productively struggle as they engage with appropriately rigorous content, tasks, and expectations; as they do the work, with appropriate support; and as they work on tasks tied to clear, specific learning goals. Students must be provided support or scaffolds only when evidence indicates the need for additional support. Scaffolds must be removed as soon as students demonstrate no further need.
Because we want to help all students succeed, stepping back can be a challenge. But student ownership of their learning is so powerful. Wit & Wisdom instructional routines and processes, like the welcome and exit activities and the repeated Content Stages, empower students to manage their own classroom experience. When students can work more independently, teachers are freed to focus on providing scaffolding and just-in-time support when needed.
Help students set goals for performance and self-assess their progress. Providing opportunities for student self-assessment helps students monitor their learning. Wit & Wisdom provides opportunities for students to reflect on their skills, content knowledge, and performance by using the rubrics and checklists provided at key points in each module. Make time for students to enter responses into their Knowledge Journals to help them cement their learning and build confidence in their abilities as knowledge builders.
Providing students with ongoing feedback on their performance also helps students identify strengths and areas for growth. Appendix C in each module includes sample responses, scoring guidelines, and rubrics. See pages 120Implementation Guide for rubrics for writing types for Grades K–8 and pages
Collaborate with colleagues. Share ideas with colleagues about how to communicate with students and families around assessment.
To ensure consistently high and appropriately rigorous expectations for student learning and performance, establish clear schoolwide standards for the evaluation of students’ Focusing Question Task (FQT) and End-of-Module (EOM) Task performance. Use the rubrics in the Implementation Guide and the sample responses, scoring guidelines, and rubrics in Appendix C of each module to ensure shared student understanding and expectations for excellent performance.
TIps for ensuring test-day success
- Teach students approaches to managing test-day anxiety, such as mindful breathing, physical movement, and an understanding that test performance is just one way to monitor their learning.
- Encourage students to engage in a regular process for completing each item that mirrors how they have approached tasks and texts in Wit & Wisdom:
- Read the passage.
- Read the item
- Reread the passage and respond.
- Encourage students to read directions and items closely. Careful reading can help test-takers avoid misreading directions or being tempted by wrong answers (which item writers call “distractors”).
- Preteach the vocabulary and language of directions (item, phrase, select, analyze, infer, task, term) typical of standardized assessments.
- If testing happens online, provide students with instruction on and practice with the digital tools they will use:
- Some assessments offer text audio as an option. Point out the icon that triggers this read-aloud option and encourage students to silently read and listen to assessment texts to benefit from both modes of delivery.
- If students can highlight phrases or terms while reading, model this skill and think-aloud to help students see how highlighting targeted key words and topic sentences is useful—but haphazard highlighting is not.
- If your state provides practice items for online assessments, provide time for students to practice navigating to hyperlinks, clicking on key words, and dragging and dropping content.
We know high-stakes testing can be stressful. With Wit & Wisdom, students build the skills and knowledge to feel confident and to successfully demonstrate what they know and can do.
ACT. Reading Between the Lines: What the ACT Reveals About College Readiness in Reading. ACT,
Shanahan, Timothy. “My Principal Wants to Improve Test Scores … Is He Right?” Shanahan on
Literacy. 17 Dec 2018. http://witeng.link/0894.
U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education
Statistics, National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) NAEP Reading Report Card:
Student Experiences. 2017 Reading Assessment. http://witeng.link/0893.
Wattenberg, Ruth. “Inside the Common Core Reading Tests: Why the Best Prep Is a Knowledge-Rich
Curriculum.” Knowledge Matters, Issue Brief #7, September 2016. http://witeng.link/0891.
Cari Killian has worked in curriculum, instruction, and leadership development for 16 years. Her educational career began in New Orleans. After Hurricane Katrina, Cari helped open KIPP NOW College Prep, a school in Houston for New Orleans evacuees. She returned to New Orleans, where she worked as a teacher and educational leader. Cari received her B.A. from Ithaca College in Business with minors in Spanish and Art History, and her M.Ed. in Education Leadership and principal licensure from LSU.