Some Thoughts on March Madness (and I Don’t Mean Basketball)

The New York State Common Core English Language Arts Assessments will be upon us in a few weeks, and this year they arrive against a backdrop of controversy over the use of standardized tests. More parents than ever have joined the opt-out movement, refusing to allow their children to submit to tests whose validity they question. Diane Ravitch has called for congressional hearings on the misuse and abuse of high-stakes standardized tests. And many states, including New York, have decided to slow down implementation of the Common Core and its tests, because as a Huffington Post education blog post states, “in far too many states, implementation has been completely botched.”

Whatever the ultimate fate of the Common Core assessments are, this year’s tests are going on as scheduled, and teachers are struggling over how to best prepare the students in their care, which has not been easy. Many schools around the country, for instance, adopted packaged reading programs that claimed to be aligned to the Standards and the tests as a way of hedging their bets, with New York City going so far as to commission a few key publishers to develop programs0 to the City’s specifications. Yet having now seen some practice tests, many teachers feel that these programs haven’t adequately prepared students for these tests. And they’re not alone in thinking this.

Sleuth CoverAccording to a recent Education Week blog post—whose title “Boasts about Textbooks Aligned to the Common Core a ‘Sham’ says it all—these programs should be viewed with caution as few, if any, live up to their claims. Many, as the blog post points out, have recycled material from older, non-Common-Core-aligned programs, such as Pearson’s ReadyGen, which uses the magazine Sleuth from its old Reading Street program for close reading practice on texts that don’t really seem close reading worthy. Others, such as Scholastic Codex, are so overly scaffolded—with teachers repeatedly directed to “assist students in understanding”—that it’s hard to see how students are being prepared for higher order independent thinking.

Meanwhile the practice tests provided by Curriculum Associates’s Ready test prep program, which most city schools are using, are insanely hard. Sixth graders, for example, most of whom have had no exposure to chemistry, must read a speech given by Madame Curie about the discovery of radium. The passage contains much content-specific science vocabulary, and while some of the words are defined for students as you’ll see below (underlining mine), the definitions seem as incomprehensible as the words in the passage themselves.

Madame Curie Speech

Meanwhile seventh graders are subjected to an excerpt from Charles Dicken’s Oliver Twist, poems by Keats and Yeats, and a speech by Ronald Reagan commemorating the 40th anniversary of D-Day, which seventh graders won’t learn about until eighth grade (provided, of course, that amid all this test prep, there’s still room for social studies).

With these texts, traditional test prep strategies don’t really seem to help. Process of elimination, for instance, will only take you so far on tests where more than one multiple choice answer seems completely plausible. And telling students to “make sure you understand the question before choosing an answer” seems almost laughable when the questions and answer choices are like the following:

Hybrid word question

But what’s really disturbing is that the Ready instructional test prep workbook doesn’t seem to help either. It’s organized in sections that correlate to individual Standards and skills—summarizing informational texts, analyzing text structure, determining point of view, etc.—but the workbook’s texts, questions and tips seem absurdly simplified when compared to the company’s practice tests. Here, for instance, is how the test prep workbook for seventh grade talks about point of view:

Analyzing Point of View

And here is a point of view question from a seventh grade practice test on a text called “Country Cousin/City Cousin” that consists of two sections with different narrators who, though dialogue, not only express their perspective but their cousin’s as well:

Narrator POV Question

The workbook suggests that a point of view is synonymous with a character’s perspective, which can be conveyed through dialogue, thoughts and actions; yet this test question requires students to think of point of view only as a narrative stance, which isn’t covered in the workbook. And even if they did get that, every answer except A seems plausible, since they more or less say the same thing. But only D is correct.

Maurice Sendak Cropped

From Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak

So, once again, what’s a teacher to do? Aware of the problems inherent in both the packaged programs and test prep materials, the teachers from a middle school I work with and I decided to take a different tack. At each grade level, we invited a small group of students who’d just finished a few passages from a practice test to talk with us about how it went. The point was not to discover who had the right answer or not, but to hear specifically what the students found challenging and how they, as readers and test takers, tried to deal with those challenges.

What the students said was enormously enlightening, as it gave us a window on how students were thinking, not just what they thought. (The confusion over what was meant by point of view, for instance, emerged during one of these talks.) And after listening carefully to what the students said and considering the instructional implications, we were able to come up with a few tips and strategies that specifically addressed what students found challenging and how some had overcome that.


We also noticed that the students were fascinated in how their classmates thought through their answers, so we also designed a new test prep practice. Rather than having the students practice simplified skills in the workbook or go over the answers to a practice test to find out which answer was right, we broke the students into groups, assigned each group a multiple-choice passage from a practice test they’d taken, and gave them a piece of chart paper. Their task was to first talk about the passage itself—what was easy, what was hard and why—then compare their answers, looking for questions for which they’d made different choices. Next each student explained to the group how and why they their answer they had—in effect, making a claim for an answer and supporting it with evidence from the text. And after listening to each other, they debated the answer and voted on one, recording their thinking on the chart paper. Then, and only then, did we consult the answer key.

Not only did the students find this more engaging than the worksheets and reviews, they also benefited from hearing how their classmates figured things out, which they could then try to do, too. Of course, it will be a while before we know how successful this approach was or not. But I have to believe that sharing the various ways different students solved the challenges these passages and questions posed was better than just reviewing the right answers. And in the meantime, I’ll keep my fingers crossed that the powers that be will listen to parents and teachers as attentively as we listened to these students and bring an end to all this testing madness.

Stop the Madness

26 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on March Madness (and I Don’t Mean Basketball)

  1. I love how you analyzed how students were thinking by having them talk to each other. As teachers monitor these conversations, they can begin developing a clearer understanding of misconceptions the can anticipate and consider in planning.

    • Hello Linda! There’s so much we can learn by listening. I feel like it’s formative assessment at its best. But, as you said, then we do have to think—sometimes outside the box–about the instructional implications of what we heard.

  2. Yes…the madness!
    I love all your clear examples that illustrate your frustrations (literally and figuratively).The SBAC (CT’s test) preparation materials are finally being released to us. I am sure there will be some ridiculous prompts as well. Already, the one that frosts me is the “teen driving” which assumes all students will be driving…not sure this is a priority for urban students. The other one on social media reeks of trying to sound “hip” when the materials are so dated (in social media, 24 hours is like carbon-dating) How this is related to interdisciplinary writing taught is social studies confuses me. Why not discuss Athens vs. Sparta? 10th Amendment? Who won the Civil War?
    Even more scary is CT’s rush to embrace materials from Engage NY, Achieve the Core, or Amplify. I say, “Stop those at the NY/CT border! Halt the emigration of bad test prep!!”

    • Jennifer Serravallo sent me a tweet that she, too, was seeing test prep as March Madness, so we’re in good company. I’m going to try to send you a pdf of a presentation that P. David Pearson (an actual educator who was on the CCSS Validation Committee) gave in which he cited Engage NY as a resource he’d sift through with a careful, critical lens, versus one that he trusted. And someone in Connecticut should talk to people administrators in NY who’ve seen kids simple stop reading because programmatic and formulaic close reading (which most kids utterly hate) has closed out independent reading.

      And as for my favorite instance of test makers being totally unaware of cultural knowledge and bias, you should have heard what a inner city class of 7th graders thought of a practice test passage from P. J. Wodehouse that was titled “Right Ho, Jeeves.” Took them forever to get past the ho.

  3. Thank you, thank you Vicki! You have offered an incredible student-centered approach to test prep. The chart developed with student input should put test prep curriculum makers out of business. Asking students to work through their process, debating along the way is simply brilliant. As far as I am concerned, these students are meeting the demands of the common core.

    Our district is doing a “practice” test next month with no scores being reported. I am overwhelmed by the released questions, and I fear many will simply give up because of the magnitude of each task. I am so grateful for the approach you describe here. It will help us work through the practice together, listening, thinking and debating how best to approach the work.

    • As I said in the post, we won’t know how much this work will affect scores for a while, but at least it feels like its test prep with some integrity—and student engagement. And it’s great when the kids start to feel like they’re really on to these crazy test makers. So hope the world comes to its senses, but in the meantime, I’m glad I could be of some help in a time that too often makes kids feel defeated.

    • In the old pre-CCSS days, Matt, teachers and I used to see test prep as a genre study and we’d even have kids choose passages and create multiple choice questions with tricks in them to get into the heads of the test makers. But these tests are so utterly crazy, it’s much harder to do that. Be curious to know how Opal deals with these tests. I like to imagine that while teachers may need to help prepare kids, they don’t fall into the anxiety trap that so much fear about test scores generates here.

  4. Vicki. Thank you for this post. So wise. One of the many things I enjoy about reading your work is how children’s thoughts always take the central place. Even when talking about something as child-excluding as individual standardized tests, you are able to include their thoughts as the North Star for our journey. Thanks.

    • Oh, another lovely metaphor, Steve. Kids’ thoughts are our North Star! In the two schools I done this in, it’s important to note that both principals were fully into it—and one actually suggested talking to the kids in the first place. Plus one of the teachers who heard how I set the students up to talk—and recognized how much she learned from it–transferred it to the small group debate & chart work in her room, which I then imported to the other rooms. So to mix up metaphors, it took a village to find and follow the North Star.

  5. I like how you opened up the test prep process and made it into a group thinking exercise, allowing students, in a sense, to take the (practice) test with others and share their thought processes.

    • I fear that too often we spend too much time setting kids up to perform and not enough time setting them up to think. The hope is that by doing this they’ll be better able to draw on the thinking when they have to perform. But at least shifting gears here made test prep not feel like drudgery.

  6. If you are interested in a program designed to train teachers in how to get their students to think critically and metacognitively, check out Project CRISS. It stands for Creating Independence through Student-owned Strategies and was developed by teachers for teachers who wanted their students to be independent thinkers and wanted to teach for understanding, not to a standardized test. It is not a kit, a workbook, or a quick fix. It involves real teaching and learning; a novel idea in this era of accountability based on standardized test results.

    • Thanks so much, Carol, for bringing this to my attention! And I love that it’s not a kit, a workbook or a quick fix. More proof—if anyone really needed it—that teachers know more about what it takes and means to learn than a test or workbook publisher.

  7. As already stated, the student friendly-nature of your final activity where students were having a conversation in a group about the test items was “crucial to learning.” The students needed to know that they were not the “only one” struggling with the vocabulary, phrasing, or content.

    I also appreciate the specificity of your own evidence about the CCSS – based materials and their recycled nature. Some publishers do not get that ALL texts are not worthy of a second read – let alone a close read!

    As always, thoughtful and insightful with some information that teachers could gather to help students continue to increase their ability to handle “odd tasks (AKA- assessments)” in the name of education.

    • Hello Fran! The other thing that was really powerful during these meetings with students was when they heard me and the other teachers groan as we read the passages. Many of us struggled with the actual science in the Madame Curie speech, and many of us disgreed on the answer—and in some cases didn’t like any of the multiple choices we were offered or disagreed with what the test makers said was the central idea. I think we did what Tom Newkirk advises: we dropped “the masks that can inhibit learning” and revealed ourselves as “the fallible, sometimes confused, sometimes puzzled readers that we are.” And it empowered the students to do that it wasn’t just them.

  8. Reading this makes me glad I didn’t have to be subjected to this as a child, but so frustrated for our current kids! I saw a staff developer on Friday use some good teaching moves while doing test prep. It was a main idea lesson and she started with what the kids knew about finding the main idea. She turned their responses into a chart and reminded them of all the great main idea work they had done across the year. Next, she had students work together to determine the main idea of a passage. Then, she taught students different ways main idea questions can be asked. Students went through the questions and found the main idea ones. I think it was helpful for them to see that although the question might be worded in a tricky way, they have the skills to answer the questions. I thought this approach focused more on good reading, instead of strictly test prep. Sending love to all the NYC children!

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  10. Terrific post! There is much here even for those of us not in a CC school as the ERBs present similar challenges. I will be sharing this. Ellen

    • Thanks, Ellen. Hope the ERBs haven’t gotten as absurdly hard as the CCS test have! But I’m imagining that charting practice could be used for book clubs and whole class novels as well.

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