During the summer, I teach a graduate course called “Documenting and Assessing Student Learning.” The course focuses on creating strong performance assessments and provides information about educational testing and assessment and how to use test data to inform teacher practice and school improvement. Each year, I ask my students to answer one of the most difficult questions I’ve ever encountered with regard to assessment: “How can my child get all A’s in your class and still score low on the state test?”
Anyone who has ever taught in the age of testing has certainly faced this question. The answer is never a simple one. Assuming your curriculum is aligned with the standards being tested, here are some guidelines for responding:
First, know that there is no stock answer to this question. It must be addressed on an individual, case-by-case basis.
Next, it is absolutely essential that you do a full examination of the student’s test result to see where the student encountered the most trouble. As an ELA teacher, I first look to see if there was an issue with long composition or open response questions, which might indicate the student had problems with writing.
If a student’s challenge was multiple choice, I look to see if the questions the student got wrong show a pattern. Did the student have trouble finding the main idea or understanding vocabulary in context, for example?
I think about that student’s unique learning profile in my class. Gerry, for example, took a great deal of time crafting his essays. He worked assiduously in class, and he frequently took his essays home with him so he could work on them at night. It was no surprise to me that Gerry had trouble completing the essay on his SAT test.
Is there an issue that would make a standardized test difficult for a student? For example, Kira has only been in this country for very short time. Despite the fact that all research on the subject states that even under the best circumstances, second language acquisition takes at least five years; Kira has one year to pass our state test. While Kira’s hard work in class and her repeated revisions on work have enabled her to get an A in my class, her skills and determination are not reflected on the standardized test.
Ask yourself the question: What other knowledge do I have about this student? This year, for example, Kyle’s test proctor told me he fell asleep during the test. He also showed up over an hour after the test started. These factors could have easily impacted his test score.
Talk to the student. Sometimes after students leave our classroom, we don’t follow up with them. I’ll often track down my former sophomores and ask them what they struggled with on the state test. Asking a student what s/he believes is the reason for a weak performance can also provide a great deal of information. Students, for example, once told me they felt overwhelmed by the poetry selections on the test. I added more classroom practice to help to alleviate those fears.
Some students need more time to take in, process, comprehend and respond to information, and, if a student does not have an individual educational plan that calls for an extended time accommodation, most standardized tests do not allow extra time. Stress to parents and families that students can still be very academically successful and attend college with a less than stellar SAT or ACT score. Students should be sure to build a strong resume which emphasizes challenging coursework and academic endeavors such as dual enrollment or summer programs, and which highlights co-curricular clubs, leadership, and enrichment activities.
Help parents and families interpret test scores so that they can chart the student’s educational progress and so that they can know whether the student is working toward her full potential. Test scores can be overwhelming for parents, especially those new to this country or those who have not had prior experience in deciphering test results. Remember that parents and families are partners in helping students reach success.
Create an action-plan for the student and share it with parents and families. Action-oriented feedback is the best feedback. Even if the student is no longer in your class, parents and families like to know how the school will address a poor performance on a test. Sometimes I suggest that the student take one of our writing electives to help strengthen that area of performance or enroll in the SAT prep course we offer at school or one that is offered free from an organization like Let’s Get Ready. I’ve recommended summer reading lists with high-interest books to help struggling readers. I’ve found summer programs at local colleges that can help students improve their skills. I’ve encouraged students to take a look at Khan Academy videos to better understand problem concepts. Providing an action-oriented solution in which all partners in a student’s success work together is always the best way to help students achieve.
Nancy Barile is a National Board certified high-school English teacher and an adjunct professor at Emmanuel College.
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