6 Ways to Win the High Stakes Assessment Race

February 24, 2017 Douglas Petrick

The way to prepare students for high stakes testing is just like preparing an athlete for a crucial match; you coach them during practice.high vault.jpg

Preparing a classroom of students for a high stakes assessment can be daunting. Whether it’s an Advanced Placement Course, an International Baccalaureate Program Class, or a Semester Final Exam, the instructor needs an intelligent plan of attack to guarantee students are competent with the content. A creative approach to high stakes assessment preparation can make the road less traveled an interesting one for both the students and the teacher.

As a High School Cross Country Coach and High School Physics Teacher, I’ve found a lot of parallels between planning proper training cycles for runners and planning intelligent instruction for students. Either way you slice it, both administrative roles are centered upon setting up the student-athlete for success in a high-stakes competition. Keeping participants engaged throughout the journey will often lead to victory.

The process I outline below requires adhering to sound planning principles for the teacher, just as it does for a coach. Each of the six guiding coaching points are listed below with a tie-in to how they connects to high stakes assessment preparation for the educator.

Coaching Tip Number 1:

Identify the major skills your students need to succeed on the high stakes assessment and introduce them early in the course.

Plan with the end goal in mind: having the end goal in mind allows the coach to question, “How does this training session fit into the main target of getting the athlete ready to race,” while planning each daily practice.

Putting It Into Practice

What specific phrases are used on the assessment to direct students to complete an explicit action? Are the words justify, derive, and explain defined as the same action by the test-graders? During the first week of your course, why not carve out time to determine the “action words,” used on the assessment to elicit a specific student response. Next set up an activity where your students observe and process how these specific action words are used in the context of actual assessments. Structure an activity in which students work in groups to identify action words used on real assessments. Allow time for groups to discuss the proper use of the word in getting an answer on the evaluation and predict trends in crafting an answer to obtain maximum credit.

You should also discuss how the assessment is formatted. Are there multiple-choice sections? Are there free response sections? Do students write directly on the test or a separate sheet of paper? You can empower your students by physically setting up some of your assessments, activities, and lessons throughout the year that matches the high stakes format. Your students will develop best practices and learn a rhythm to working the test. There is a comfort level when things seem familiar—the anxiety of the test taker is lowered, and additional mind space is liberated—allowing students to demonstrate their wealth of knowledge.

Coaching Tip Number 2:

Keep variety in the classroom by completing a diverse array of activities, not just practice tests, to keep morale high and keep students engaged in the content.

Teach competency at a variety of paces- athletes need to have fun to stay committed to training. Planning a range of activities, workouts, and race distances keep things interesting throughout the season. A similar concept can be used in the classroom.

Putting It Into Practice

Even if your upcoming high-stakes assessments focus on strictly multiple-choice questions, there is value to working a variety of assessment types throughout the year. Variety permits students to obtain breadth and depth in the content, not just regurgitation. Labs, quizzes, presentations, demonstrations, web-quests, simulations, and gallery crawls, etc., when carefully crafted, can directly align with the content your students need most. Tapping into your students’ higher-level thinking skills allows them to use a variety of approaches to problem-solving, regardless of the assessment type.

Coaching Tip Number 3:

Large blocks of consistent activities related to major themes on the assessment will always trump “cram session” test reviews.

Consistency is king: athletes that can string together large chunks of consistent training throughout weeks and months are the most successful when it’s time to race. The same is true when it comes to learning.

Putting It Into Practice

It is best to approach your “review tactics,” as a yearlong process, which is iterative. Integrate the review into your chapter assessments and weekly lessons. Highlight major themes prevalent on the high-stakes assessment and weave them into lessons and activities. Expose trends in problem-solving that help students see the big picture in each situation. If you are consistent about exposing your students to “reviewing as they learn,” the approach becomes seamless and nearly unnoticeable. This is how real learning and processing takes place. The most disjointed “cram reviews,” are when the instructor finishes the course content and spends 3-4 weeks hyper-focused, reviewing for the test. Students feel anxiety from an approach that screams, “The previous eight months didn’t have much correlation to the assessment looming around the corner!” What is this approach telling the students about your content delivery for the better part of the academic year?

Coaching Tip Number 4:

Ensure students and teacher alike are mimicking the pace expected on the high stakes assessment throughout the year.

Speed development can be performed year-round: speed for a distance runner is something that needs honing, appropriately, throughout the year to breed familiarity, comfort, and confidence. High stakes testing is like a timed distance race, and students need to learn how to be strategic with their time.

Putting It Into Practice

What are the time restraints for the high stakes assessment? How many minutes are the students allotted per question at the end of the year? What resources are permitted for the students on the assessment…calculators? Equation sheets? References? It is critical to keep students aware of these restrictions throughout the year. A smart approach is to enforce these restrictions often on classroom items, so the high stakes assessment restraints seem familiar. If a resource is permitted on the year-end assessment, use it and refer to it often. Get students used to the “grooving the pace,” needed on the test. Be honest about the time restraints and put them in action on a consistent basis.

Another way for students to sharpen their high stakes assessment acumen is by practicing proper test-taking strategies in the classroom. Some items to explain to your class are the following: How are points calculated? Do all students start with a score of zero, and gain points for correct answers or do students get penalized and lose points for incorrect answers? Each requires a student strategy. As students progress through the test, do the questions get more challenging? If so, is it beneficial for students to take the exam by answering all the easy questions first and to “strategically guess,” with a pre-selected “no clue answer,” if they have narrowed down more than half the multiple choice answers? Will students earn partial credit for free response problems if they know the procedure, but not the correct answer from subsequent parts of the problem? Simulating employment of proper test-taking strategies in the classroom is an intelligent method to eliminate surprises on the high stakes assessment.

Coaching Tip Number 5:

Students make stronger connections to the content when the class is teacher driven but student-centered.

Model a team-first approach: a coach needs to create a team culture where younger runners feel comfortable approaching the leaders as mentors on the roster, understanding that each athlete has a vital role on the team, regardless of ability level. Mimic this in class.

Putting It Into Practice

It is the teacher’s responsibility to put a system in place that encourages collaboration amongst students. It is a critical skill for students to become advocates for their education, utilizing their peers as mentors. Simple changes, like grouping desks in pods of three or four, can do wonders for classroom culture. When an educator creates such an environment, he or she is empowering students to become invested in their learning. In turn, this allows the educator to become more of a facilitator, slowly weaning students off constant dependency on the teacher. Group verbal check-ins on concepts, instead of individual student feedback, can be meshed into learning. Verbal exchanges force students to guarantee the rest of the group grasps the topics in question. Consequently, students hold each other accountable, accepting that each member is contributing to something more valuable.

Coaching Tip Number 6:

Communicate the philosophy behind your approach to your students.

Have transparency in the vision: athletes will become more invested in the training if they understand the basics behind how each workout will help them improve a specific physiological system and skill set needed for a competition. So will your students.

Putting It Into Practice

It’s easier to get students, parents, and administration to buy into your methods of instruction if they understand how you arrived at making those decisions. Sharing successes with all stakeholders reinforce what you do well. Sharing areas for improvement, formulating a strategy, and executing that plan is a best practice. Be transparent and inform your students with the why’s and how’s of these implementations within the first two weeks of the academic year. Show them the data that you used to make these choices. Your professional judgment will be held in high regard as you select academic options throughout the year.

With your finger always on the pulse of the content area, stakeholders will view you as an expert in the subject area. Your role will evolve into an instructor that is doing what is best for students in preparation for the high stakes test, rooted in current and relevant data. Honesty in your approach will serve as a great anchor to return to throughout the year when the “why are we doing this,” questions begin to arise.

Off to the Races!

“Teaching to the test,” doesn’t have to be the only path to success…there are more exciting and useful ways to keep your class engaged and focused on success down the road in the upcoming months. In training, as well as teaching, it’s crucial to connect all aspects of your plan to that specific high stakes competition. Running the road less traveled is more fun anyway- terrain can change, elevation can climb, footing can be unsteady, and won’t that be more memorable?

How do you instruct your classes to prepare for a high stakes assessment? Is there a guiding principle that works best for you and your students? I’m interested to hear about what different techniques you use to set your students up for success on high stakes assessments. Please write your comments in the space below, and I will be sure to answer them.

Want to learn more about winning the high stakes assessment race? Listen to my Wiley Network Podcast here.

Doug Petrick is currently a high school Physics teacher at Upper St. Clair High School in Pittsburgh. Doug regularly contributes to a series for educators here on Wiley Exchanges offering practical advice and instructional strategies.

Image credit: technotr/iStockphoto


About the Author

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