Sunday, February 10, 2013

MCAS Prep 2013

Yesterday I received an email from a mom outside of my school district who was interested in helping her child prepare for upcoming MCAS tests. I am focussing on the MCAS main objectives during the next leg of the school year.  Rather than "teach to the test," I try to cull the life-long lessons from the standards and focus on those.

For fourth graders, the main objectives of the MCAS test are the following:
  • Close Reading and Reading Response:  I call it early "legal reading" and tell the students stories of times in my life and the lives of others when close reading has been very important. In today's world of information excess and information manipulation, it is very important that people learn to closely read and identify the meaning of text and information. Close reading involves using the text to read for fact and inference. To do that well, one must do the following:
    • Pre-read: Consider the genre, text structure, source/author and purpose of the text.
    • Slow Reading: Read slow enough to "see a picture or movie" of the text in your mind.  Stop to gain meaning when needed and pay attention to captions, images, titles and other information that helps you understand the text. 
    • Writing detailed, concise responses to questions that include evidence and explanation.
  • Essay Writing: Fourth graders have to write a lengthy essay or story that demonstrates craft, opinion, voice and organization.  Again, this is an important life-long skill, the ability to write.  Hence we'll practice this skill by handwriting and typing many essays and stories that  are meaningful to us.  We'll read great examples of essays and stories, and look at the ways published, highly-regarded authors start their essays, add craft, organize and present their work.  Essentially we'll have wonderful writing workshops to build this skill.
  • Math Problem Solving: As we continue to learn content and skill in math, we'll also focus on how to carefully solve a math problem and explain our thinking.  Again, this is a worthy skill that will come up time and again in children's lives as they balance bank accounts, create budgets, compare costs, invent, experiment, build and create.  Hence we'll make the time to practice solving these problems and compare our work with each other to build this skill.
One can use standardized tests to "teach to the test" in ways that are unsubstantial and superficial or you can cull the essential elements of the test, those of life-long learning worth and focus on those.  That's what we'll do, and while we do it, we'll also discuss and use the following strategies:
  • Mnemonic devises such as "TREE, "TRELL" and "COPS" to lead thinking and work in writing.
  • Graphic organizers to help children plan and organize their writing and thinking.
  • Digital tools  to practice, assess and share our work in engaging, meaningful ways.
  • Meaningful topics and text that engage students' time and interest.
  • Optimal mindsets and the knowledge that "slow, thoughtful work is best" on this test.
  • Special education accommodations i.e. large print, separate setting, "reading," typing, clarification and others as noted on specific student's iep's and available via educational plans. 
  • Introduction to the test structure, form and rationale.  I tell students the following: "The tests are given to all students in the State.  Teachers use the data to assess our teaching and what students know. If a child shows that he/she doesn't know a skill or knowledge point, then it's our job as teachers to teach that skill and knowledge the following year.  The test is a chance to show off all that you know and do your best, that way teachers won't reteach what you know already."
  • Preparation processes as outlined in this document.
I remain a fan of streamlined standardized testing that assesses students' skills in the essential elements of learning.  I'm looking forward to the time when these tests are taken on the computer rather than by hand because to ask students to write lengthy essays by hand is no longer respectful or best practice--we all know that writing with a digital device with spell check and other tools is the way most people write because it takes away the drudgery and adds the tools to allow writers to focus more on the content than spelling, grammar, erasing and rewriting. 

The tests are coming and we'll make it a point to give students every advantage to do well and more importantly, to learn the essential skills the tests include: 
  • reading with understanding.
  • responding to text with detail, organization and thought.
  • writing with craft, organization and voice.
  • problem solving with mathematical reasoning, concept and skill.  
We'll discuss these points as a grade level team at upcoming PLCs, and in the meantime, I welcome your thoughts.