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Tests as a Genre

Helping Students Demonstrate What They Know and Understand

Once again, I am wide awake to my learning - I am blessed to be living in a country of new languages and not quite familiar culture and customs. While I work to figure out how to get around my new home city to find a bank, a pharmacy, a way to get a tram ticket, I am taking notes. Notes which help me walk in our students' shoes. As a new language learner, as an (adult) international student, as a person in the new genres of this international context, what is helping me understand? What do I need to know and be able to do? How can I build my proficiency to take care of myself and to fit in as a caring and respectful neighbor? These insights make me think about all the new learning journeys our students encounter with us every day and every year.

As we apprentice students as readers, writers, and thinkers for any and all content areas, it's vital to help them navigate diverse genres. Thinking like a scientist, what texts will your students need to understand and generate themselves? As mathematicians, what genres will your students use in building their conceptual understanding and demonstrating their math thinking? As artists, how can we explore multiple texts to paint a portrait of possibilities for students as innovators and curators of their own learning? Likewise, as historians, poets, athletes, kindergarteners, inventors, musicians, and learners of any specific discipline, it is critical to model and collaboratively practice disciplinary literacy with our students. Being our students' genre tour guide can give them informed opportunities to understand specific types of texts and to better know how to offer their thinking in genre-specific responses.

One crucial aspect of our disciplinary focused apprenticeships is helping students know how to read, understand, and respond to the genres of tests. I learned this tough lesson early in my teaching from my own students struggles in sharing their insights and capacities on tests. I knew my students really did understand the concepts of our current Unit of Study and I had witnessed them very successfully performing the skills of the Unit multiple times over time. But, when given a test, I saw too many of my students choke or fail. I think of Emilio and Tran.

Emilio had clearly demonstrated his proficiency in reading and writing of nonfiction texts (and many other kinds of writing, too) in multiple writing samples, a common writing assessment my team and I used throughout the year, and through my conference record notes. All the data illustrated Emilio's proficiency as a writer. But, when he engaged in number #2 pencil type standardized tests, Emilio's normal fluency and confidence were visibly stalled. And then it hit me - The tasks of the test were completely new to Emilio. I had not modeled that type of prompted writing enough and especially had not given my students enough practice to write within a tight timeline. Emilio's struggles, like so many of my students at that time, were not reflective of his abilities as a writer. Rather, his struggles were grounded in not understanding how to read and respond to the test genre.

For Tran, the genre of tests was also daunting.  I realized, too, that it was not just the tasks of the test which where causing her and so many of my students trouble though.  It was the language of the test itself which was tripping the kids up.  Like most of my students, Tran was a new English Language Learner.  She was making healthy progress in her acquisition of language as evidenced by the frequent formative assessment efforts of myself and my co-teaching partner, especially our rigorous conferring rituals.  As Tran took a test, we received our awakening.  She looked up at us thinking we could and work be able to confer with her as we normally did.  Walking over to her, I could only offer her the warmest reminder of not really being able to confer with her during the test. Tran had her finger poised on some words of the directions.  Looking at the words of the test directions and looking at Tran's face, my heart sunk.  I realized that Tran did not understand what the test directions were asking her to do to demonstrate her comprehension of the test passage.  Later, as I looked over her exam book (the part we could keep, not the part which got sent off to the test company sealed and sacred), she had left tracks of her thinking to mark the places or words which were confusing to her.  Terms and directions such as "...the most important reason why..." and "Which word is closer to describing how the character felt?" and "Circle the words which do not belong here..."  I had failed to help Tran and my other students know what this test language meant and not adequately modeled and practiced responding to pieces this way.  From that day forward, I knew that I had to weave tests into our thinking strategy studies and our content area learning more earnestly and much more vividly throughout the year.  Not as test prep really but as essential life skills to help my students be able to go public with their real understanding and capacities.  

The attached resource is offered to give you support in taking your students on "tests as a genre" learning journeys throughout the year. I begin to engage my students in these studies with artifacts from their lives - board games and fun magazine quizzes. It is so important to build up students' test confidence and I find layers of collaborative practice from and with normal, everyday forms of tests has been the most powerful way to apprentice Kindergarten through twelfth grade students. I know the important of efficacy because I was one of those kids who had a great deal of test anxiety. True confessions...I threw up during my ninth grade Spanish final. So, with the humbling days of my early teaching and my own trouble with test courage, I share these ideas with you and hope they offer you and your kids edifying lessons to help all children be able to share what they know and can do.

I believe that the most effective path to staff development and change is through the door of assessment. The process of aligning and revising the continuums provides an opportunity to articulate and re-examine our beliefs and teaching practices (Hill, 2001). *Bonnie’s advice is true and very sound thinking for all assessment tools.

Assessment should be a point where learning can be initiated rather than concluded. Porter & Cleland, 1995, Portfolio as a Learning Strategy

Evaluation ought to be one

of the greatest energy

givers for the teacher in

the classroom. The best

teachers evaluate from the

time the first child enters

the classroom until she

leaves. Don Graves

The way to ace a reading test is by being exposed to a coherent,

sequenced, broad, rigorous curriculum.

Linda Bevilacqua in K. K. Manzo’s “Learning Essentials,” Education Week, May 21, 2008

Achievement is largely the product of steadily raising one’s levels of aspiration and expectation.

Jack Nicklaus, My Story

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