Friday, March 14, 2008

Preparing Students for Standardized Test Taking

Two simple words, standardized test, bring chills to the spines of educators, parents, and students. But those two words also bring some level of accountability for which I am grateful. If you’re looking for a rant about standardized testing you won't find it here, but you also won't find whole hearted acceptance.

You see, this week, I've been administering the Reading and Mathematics FCAT, Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, as a fourth grade test proctor. I've seen students sit through test after test--Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. They will get a well deserved weekend break before getting back to it on Monday. And, if they are unfortunate enough to be a fifth grader, they will also be tested on Tuesday in Science. All in all, one solid week of testing, hour after hour. I have to wonder if the state could collect the same information, just as reliable and valid, in a much shorter time frame or form. After all, it's Friday evening, and as I was dragging out of school today thoroughly exhausted, you could have heard me utter, “TGIF.” If I’m feeling this way, how are the students feeling this evening?

However exhausted they should be, I will tell you, they certainly do impress me. They seem focused, confident, and patient. They have stamina to stay the course far longer than I think I would. I know the reason they are so prepared is by the careful design of each of their teachers. Each teacher, from Kindergarten on, has prepared them for this high stakes assessment day, for this content, problem solving, and testing taking.

At The Creek, we use many tools to prepare them, but by far, in my opinion, the two most essential tools, are common grade level reading and math assessments, and embedded test taking strategies. Even our youngest learners encounter common cold reading comprehension assessments given across the grade level. Teachers look for patterns, analyze question stems, and discuss results and instruction. Each grade level labors over aligning their standards, curriculum, instruction, and assessment to prepare students. Moreover, teachers begin teaching test taking strategies as early as 1st grade, because they know that students need to be taught to take a test. In fact, being a test taker is critically important when grade promotion and graduation depend on it. And, when, it takes a high SAT score to get admitted to a four year university, you need to be sure students are equipped. In addition, these students will likely take a test to enter their profession whether it is as an educator, engineer, doctor, or attorney, to name just a few. Passing tests are a part of present day life, whether we like it or not. So, our teachers must learn to teach not only the content, critical thinking, problem solving, skills, strategies, creativity, but also to teach test taking strategies.

Preparing students for success by practicing test taking relaxes children, eliminates test anxiety, and ultimately gives you a clear picture of the child's actual content knowledge. After all, isn't that truly what everyone wants to know?

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Student Fluency = More Money

Recently, much dialogue, in our primary school, has centered around DIBELS (Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills). Phonological awareness, alphabetic principle, and fluency are the 3 Big Reading areas covered on this quick assessment. For example, in 2nd grade, the two parts of the test are nonsense words and timed oral reading. Results are used to measure a student's literacy development.

Why are we talking about this one assessment so much? Because, it has gone high stakes. Our district is using DIBELS in Kindergarten, 1st, and 2nd grade as the sole measure of a teacher's instructional ability toward performance pay. Teachers are placed in a silo based on their grade level, students are assessed within testing windows three times a year, and our students' growth is measured throughout the year. If you are one of the teachers in the top 20% of your silo for displaying the most student growth on DIBELS, you are one of the lucky ones, and you are rewarded with a bonus check. You heard me correctly, student fluency = more money!

Doesn't sound quite fair, that one timed assessment measuring only three of the five reading areas is used to gauge teacher's instructional ability, does it? Especially, when that test doesn't assess a student's comprehension, the ultimate goal of reading. But, for now, it is the measure my district has selected for handing out bonuses, and one I must learn to navigate within.
Therefore, as the 2nd grade literacy coach in my school, I felt compelled to build awareness among my teachers, and offer them suggestions to help students struggling with fluency. The first thing we did was hire a paraprofessional to implement Great Leaps, a saftey net program aimed to help students struggling with fluency. The one-on-one intervention requiring daily pull out was implemented by a paraprofessional who pulled select students for 3-5 minutes throughout the day. Though we were able to serve a select group of the students, we never feel like it is quite enough. We wished all students had this opportunity, but it was too time consuming for teachers to do.

Our Teacher Meeting discussions lead to ideas for more whole group shared reading activities, and we pulled the web based resources offered by DIBELS to help with whole group and small group instruction. Of course, we were looking for something more.

I questioned Kinder and 1st grade teachers, "What are you doing that we are not doing in 2nd grade?" One thing they said is that they spend 30 minutes a day on Skills Block, a component due to scheduling that we only have 10-15 minutes for. So, we began making scheduling changes for next year. In addition, one team of first grade teachers shared their unique idea--timed fluency passages for homework which would allow multiple readings of the same text. It added only one additional minute to a child's homework, but they felt like it helped their targeted students. It was one way to get all students repeated reading instruction without additional personnel. I shared the idea with my 2nd grade ELA teachers and they loved it.

Before weeks end, one self-directed teacher had taken the fluency homework on as her personal mission. She took a reading passage, retyped it, added numbers at the end of sentences indicating the number of words in that sentence, and even added a Monday through Friday chart at the bottom of her page to record wpm each night. She created a parent letter explaining her added fluency homework.

The basic idea of the fluency homework is for a student to do a one minute timed reading of a text. Timing can be done by a parent or older sibling. Then, the number of words read correctly are recorded in the chart for that day. Throughout the week, this same routine is repeated. On Friday the teacher (or parent volunteer) listens to each child read their passage and records how many wpm they read. At that time, the teacher decides whether the student gets this same passage for the next week, or a new passage. So far the results are showing promise.

Moreover, to improve, we've diligently analyzed our student's results compared to: previous years, the national average, schools with similar demographics, and our Kindergarten and 1st grade results. Knowing how we compare will allow us to measure how well our students are progressing, and hopefully will put my 2nd grade teachers in the running for some extra cash!

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Working on the Work

2nd Grade WOW (Working on the Work) Wednesday was a huge success! The ELA team began their day in Mrs. Mallon’s Kindergarten classroom where they observed the 30-minute fast paced morning Skills Block.

Children were gathered on the carpet in their meeting area as Maria began with her Morning song, Children's Name song, and swiftly moved into the children reviewing their letter combination charts and initial blends.

Next, came the morning message. Morning message is a short message written by the teacher that lacks some form of punctuation including capitalization, quotation marks, commas, and even missing letters. The teacher called a student to the board to spend a few seconds correcting the message. That student then quickly called on another child who eagerly bounced to the board to begin correcting the message. Frequently, Mrs. Mallon asked, "Why did you put a comma there?" Or, "How did you know to put quotation marks?" Students not only corrected mistakes within the message but they also circled letter combinations and beginning blends. In addition, there was a vocabulary magnet that a student placed in the sentence next to a vocabulary word--delighted. This fast paced activity was seamless and the teacher keep an eye on the time. Not all the mistakes were corrected in time, so Mrs. Mallon finished making the corrections. Then, the students did a shared reading of the message.

Before you knew it, another song was playing, students were jumping up and beginning to dance. When the song ended students quickly calmed, and quietly sunk back to the floor. Mrs. Mallon guided the lesson into word families as she called on students to help her fill in words for the ide family--slide, stride, tide.

After that, students worked on a new skill--compound words. They matched words from the left side of a pocket chart to the right side and made the new compound word. To conclude, students returned to their seats to do an independent compound word sort activity and the teacher facilitated by moving table to table, checking student's understanding of compound words. We enjoyed every minute of our Skills Block observation.

After the lesson, 2nd Grade teachers gathered in the conference room to debrief. They noted Maria's firmly established rituals and routines, the quick transition between skills/activities, the integration of movement and music with learning, and the depth and consistency of the skills being taught. In addition, they loved the total integration of so many skills covered at one time.

They immediately began drawing parallels to their own work. They verbalized that they wanted to incorporate morning message, vowel combination charts, and music in their own skills block time. They reflected on what part of their Skills Block they thought was effective and what they desired to change. Without delay, they used conversation to spring board into new ideas like including a shared reading activity using a poem into their morning routine. They couldn't wait to get started!

Next, the teachers reviewed the Skills Block portion of the Kindergarten and First Grade pacing guides, so they could compare it to their Second Grade pacing guide. This vertical alignment discussion proved important because we made the decision to rearrange and change the Second Grade pacing guide for next year based off their conversation. We also noted that we did not have enough vocabulary development at 2nd Grade after reviewing the standards. To correct that issue, we turned to Text Talks, and will incorporate this read aloud / vocabulary routine into our instruction.

Unlike Kindergarten and 1st Grade, at Chets, 2nd Grade classes are departmentalized. That means to ensure a 30-minute Skills Block, we must look at the overall schedule. We have to ensure that 60 minutes is set aside for both Readers' Workshop and Writers' Workshop, too. Therefore, we spent the remainder of the day asking ourselves questions:
  • Do we have 2 hours and 30 minutes set aside for our morning class?
  • Do we have 2 hours and 30 minutes set aside for our afternoon class?
  • Could we break Skills Block into two 10 minute sessions? Would that be effective?
  • Could we change our lunch and resource time to make sure we have these two blocks of time?
  • Should all classes be co-teach instead of departmentalized to allow for a more flexible schedule in the day?
  • What are the most age appropriate and critical skills Second Graders need to master?
  • Could we do a better job of planning with our Math and Science teachers to assure skill alignment in the subject areas?

The day was focused on one task analyzing Skills Block to create vertical alignment and accountability, and I can't think of a more productive professional development session!