Keep, stop, start. Preparing for state reading assessments

I encourage you to keep teaching the curriculum, stop analyzing data by questions and standards, and start preparing students for the testing environment.

State testing takes place each spring, but for many educators testing has felt particularly important this year, after more than two years of disrupted learning due to the pandemic. We all want to know if students are making critical learning gains. But we also know our students need much more than test prep this time of year.

George Galindo
George Galindo

I’m fortunate enough to work with districts across the southern region of the United States leading a shift from traditional test-preparation practices to something much deeper: leveraging high-quality English language arts curricula to deepen literacy instruction while ensuring students are ready for spring reading tests.

Keep teaching quality curriculum

I often remind school leaders that if they’re using a rigorous, high-quality ELA curriculum that teaches reading skills and systematically builds student knowledge on important topics, you need all the time in a school year to teach it.

For years, I’ve seen school leaders stop high-quality instruction to have teachers start test preparation. Some schools offered ?boot camps? that prioritized having students read test-like passages and respond to multiple-choice items. Teachers tracked students’ data and monitored their progress on skills and standards. Then, they worked with school leaders to make instructional plans based on students’ challenges with specific standards. That doesn’t really help improve learning or achievement.

So, what does develop stronger readers?the kind that enjoy reading and succeed on standardized assessments?

  • Building students’ content knowledge
  • Engaging students in complex texts
  • Explicitly teaching vocabulary
  • Engaging students in meaningful discussion about texts
  • Prompting students to write in response to texts

Stop analyzing assessment data by questions, skills, and standards

Assessments should inform instruction, but we don’t always analyze assessments well. When I was a teacher, my principal required teachers to analyze questions on interim assessments by standard. So, I analyzed the main-idea questions and made instructional decisions about how to support students who didn’t perform well on this standard. We mistakenly assumed that students who missed these questions just needed more practice with this skill. 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. If students don’t have knowledge on the topic, which is often the case with passages on state reading tests, lots of practice finding the main idea won’t help.

Related: 5 ways to help students stressed by assessment

We need to shift our focus toward building students’ knowledge and comfort with complex texts instead of narrowing analysis only to a question stem or an isolated standard. To be a good reader, it helps to develop knowledge about the subjects you’re reading about. Then, over time, you can access more complex reading material on those topics.

When I moved from teaching to an administrative role and began implementing a reading program that systematically builds content knowledge across coherent texts, I realized the previous methods we used for data analysis and test preparation conflicted with our revised vision and approach. It was my responsibility to lead the shift in instruction. To do this, I facilitated a professional learning session with leaders and teachers in which we analyzed an interim test passage to understand what made the assessment passage complex for our students. We asked:

  • What do you notice about this passage?
  • What might students wonder?
  • How is this passage organized?
  • What’s happening in this text?

After wondering and organizing, we moved forward with our analysis, finding places where students may have been challenged by complex sentence structures, unfamiliar vocabulary, or a lack of knowledge. We could see that spending class time on providing students with multiple-choice questions related to a variety of reading passages from tests wouldn’t help build comprehension skills. Instead, continuing to build a strong base of foundational knowledge through the ongoing implementation of a strong curriculum would better prepare students for the expectations outlined in the state assessment.

Related: 4 big ways the pandemic is changing assessment in schools

There’s another good reason for school leaders to shift assessment-related conversations with teachers from a focus on narrow skills to conversations about knowledge, vocabulary, and text complexity: assessments are starting to shift. Louisiana is a leader in this work, but my home state of Texas is also making changes?to incorporate rich, cross-curricular knowledge into the passages on our state reading test, rather than reading passages that may be disconnected from topics students are learning about in school and are just aimed at assessing isolated reading skills like finding the main idea.

Start preparing students for the testing environment

Students do benefit from a little explicit preparation with their state’s test format. They should know what they will encounter. How many testing sessions will they complete? Will they take the test on paper or by computer? If online, have they practiced reading with digital annotation and note-taking tools?

But you don’t have to stop teaching the curriculum. Instead:

  • Emphasize the importance of reading closely and teach students to transfer their process for analyzing complex texts to passages on the state test. The strong reading habits built in class should be transferable to new texts, including standardized passages.
  • Pre-teach the vocabulary and language of typical directions from the state test.
  • Engage your staff in professional learning around your adopted curriculum and how your school or system will approach assessment analysis.

Despite any anxiety you might feel about state reading tests, 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 school culture around testing, but you can lead meaningful change that positively affects the bottom line?student learning.

Dr. George D. Galindo is as an implementation leader for Great Minds, the developer of Wit & Wisdom? ELA, and 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 public school English teacher and school and charter network leader to support student growth and achievement through curriculum and assessment design, implementation support, instructional coaching, and professional development.

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