Disrupting Our Thinking About Testing

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My heart sank as I stood at the photocopier and placed the thick packet on the feeding tray. The bold print words “Grade 5 ELA State Test” instantly filled me with dread dredging up 15-year-old anxiety from preparing former fifth graders for "the" test. I shook my head feeling a mix of disappointment and frustration at the federal government’s decision to hold tests this year. While I am confident that my students’ reading growth will outshine any test, I dutifully photocopied the packet in order to prepare students mentally and emotionally for the days that await them next month.

Given the challenges we have faced this year, I knew I could not go back to the same old test prep lessons I had facilitated in the past. The year of teaching in the midst of a global pandemic, where authenticity, connection, and joy have served as the pillars of my teaching, needed to be different.

I woke up on the morning that I planned to teach testing strategies with an epiphany. I believe that 80% of the test is attitude and engagement. When students sit down to read a text passage, they expect it to be a slog. What if I disrupted that thinking? What if I take the first test passage and read it aloud to students? I decided I wouldn’t even tell them that it is a passage from a former test. I’d read it like any other read aloud and engage students in a partner and whole-class discussion. By the time we finished the discussion, the multiple-choice questions would be a breeze!

So yesterday morning, I did just that. I connected to my inner actor and read a passage about Snowflake Bently like it was the best story ever. Students talked about obstacles Willie Bentley faced, traits that described his character, how the setting impacted the story, and how one event in his life led to another. It was brilliant. After our conversation came to a close, I became an actor turned magician ready to lift the magic cloth revealing my trick. With a sly smile on my face, I asked my students, “Can you guess where I found this article?”
“Newsela? A website?” they guessed.
“No!” and with that, I placed the test packet under the document camera. The reveal was met with a collective “Ugh!”

I resisted the urge to commiserate and pushed forward:
“Wait a minute. Did you not just enjoy that story?” I asked
“Yes,” they admitted.
“And didn’t we just have a compelling conversation about it?”
Heads nodded.
“So, maybe, just maybe some of the passages in the test you will take aren’t so bad. Maybe they are even interesting.”

Then, I modeled some transitional thinking using the “I used to think… but now I realize” model.
“Hmmm. I used to think that all test passages were a slog. But now I realize that some can actually be pretty interesting. I also realize that if I approach the passage with the potential to be interesting and thought-provoking, my attitude, and chances of doing well on the multiple-choice questions, increase.”

“Let’s all place our hands on our hips just like Wonder Woman.” I went on to explain the science behind power poses that I have used countless times thanks to Amy Cuddy’s powerful Ted Talk.
We talked about the power of thoughts, feelings, and actions and repeated our class mantra: “We can do hard things.” The energy lifted, students smiled. It was great.

This year, preparing for a test will be all about building confidence and becoming reflective and aware of how our thoughts lead to feelings and actions.

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