Friday, March 20, 2015

Hiding PARCC Test Prep in Plain Sight

My three kiddos hate veggies, and so I try to puree and hide them in everything from spaghetti sauce to brownies and muffins. I suggest thinking of test prep in the same way. Preparing students for the PARCC assessments should begin the very first day of school, and can be easily embedded (snuck) into our everyday instruction and assessment.
I have heard a lot of teachers worry that they are spending their valuable instructional time teaching to the test.  Maybe I am na├»ve, but I think that teaching to the test and preparing students for a new assessment design are two different things.  My sixteen-year-old son recently took his driver’s test, and he felt confident and prepared before sliding into the driver’s seat with his evaluator.  He had gone through the driver’s education classes, read through the test manual (maybe the only book he has read in recent months), and spent countless hours driving with his dad and me.  He even practiced using his dad’s big, old truck, my midsize vehicle, and my mother-in-law’s smaller car so that he would be prepared to drive any vehicle. Was this teaching to the test? Maybe…or maybe it was helping adequately prepare him so that he would be successful during the driving test.
When I think of teaching to the test, I think of teaching students to complete artificial, inauthentic tasks that they will find only on a standardized test.  I am not advocating for the PARCC or any other standardized assessments, but what I am doing is trying to convince teachers to be gentle with themselves.  The standards are new, the assessments are new, and teachers need time and support to learn. This is not going to happen in a forty-five minute session, but rather through sustainable professional development in which teachers have ownership over their learning.
The title to my post may be a little misleading as there are no silver bullets or Buckle Down Ohio books to teach students how to be successful on the PARCC assessments.  Real test preparation is going to come from teachers’ good teaching.  Teachers have to trust in their own content expertise, and the positive relationships and class culture they build and nurture throughout the school year.
To prevent artificial test prep, teachers need to delve into the standards and to reflect on their classroom instruction and assessment practices. This is hard work, and it will take time and support. Here are some steps I suggest for teachers to help avoid falling into the test prep trap:
1.     You want me to what? Again? Deconstruction has earned a bad rap with many teachers, but it is critical that we continue to deconstruct and analyze the CCSS to gain a more in depth understanding of these complex standards. Our students may be demonstrating the first two parts of a standard, but what about the third and fourth parts? It’s not that difficult for students to identify the theme in a text, but can they provide evidence of how this theme was developed throughout the text?  What does this even look like? How can it be differentiated for diverse learners?  How do we assess this? This deconstruction process is best done through collaborative discussions with colleagues, and is even better with coffee and chocolate.
2.     It’s all about the alignment.  Teachers need time and support to reflect on their instruction, and to evaluate their alignment to the standards.  What worked well this year?  What needs refinement?  Where was our pacing too fast?  Too slow?  Are we teaching to the rigorous expectations of the standards?  Are we best meeting the learning needs of our students? I created a simple checklist for teachers to help begin this conversation.
3.     Where do we find time to teach everything we need to teach? I am a big fan of Backward Design. Wiggins and McTighe (2000) argue that we can’t start planning how we are going to teach until we know exactly what we want our students to learn.  In Backward Design, essential questions are used to guide the creation of units that integrate the various elements of the CCSS. The unit is driven by standards and a culminating activity, texts are chosen as tools to address the standards, and writing, language, and speaking and listening activates are placed throughout the unit. Check out a sample integrated unit I have been building. It makes sense that things that go together are best taught and learned together.
Teachers naturally are a reflective group, and I am predicting that many of us are already thinking about what we will change for next school year. While you are reflecting on these changes, I would also encourage you to think of all that you and your students have achieved thus far this year. Be kind to yourselves.  Treat yourselves with the same understanding and patience you offer to the learners in your classroom.