Writing Beyond the Test: An Approach to Preparing for Standardized Tests

I am an instructional coach, and a few weeks ago, I was doing a little grading with one of my teachers. After reading the “nth” response, a feeling settled in the depths of my gut - it was a mix between nostalgia and panic. I felt like I was on a loop reading and rereading the same response over and over again. No, I am not complaining that too many students accurately answered the question or that students were cheating. I was experiencing the impact of teaching students R.A.C.E. (i.e., Restate the question, Answer, Cite evidence, Explain evidence)  to answer open-ended responses.  As a result, the phrases: my evidence is, the text says, and this proves repeatedly cycled through each answer without any depth of ideas in their writing. I wondered,  “how did we get here?”

The impact of high stakes tests on testing practices 

Honestly, I believe most teachers (at least at my school) have administrators deeply invested in how well they perform on yearly standardized tests. To be clear, the roots and reality of standardized testing are racist, and it only takes a quick Google search to read the reports and data. And, the test culture is real. There’s hype, weeks (or even months) of preparation, giant countdown posters, pep rallies, and mock assessments all aimed at improving student performance. There is nothing wrong with getting students excited about school. There is a problem when schools get bogged down in student labels and numbers. 

To achieve results, teachers have curated an endless list of tips and strategies for students. Again, there’s nothing wrong with rooting for students and providing a roadmap to navigate a high-stakes test. However, we must remember that scoring well on a standardized writing assignment doesn’t assure excellence. The high-stakes era of testing has caught countless teachers between a rock and a hard place. Many teachers feel under siege with testing agendas that have detained their creativity and confiscated their autonomy. This experience is exacerbated in under-resourced communities where deficit-based descriptors are often used to mischaracterize students and teachers, and administrators feel the weight of needing “perform” on tests to prevent the state from taking over, or in worst-case scenarios, closing schools. Most importantly, the push for favorable outcomes has polluted the student writing experience with practice tests and feedback rooted in scoring well versus developing voice. 

Does it have to be this way?

Let’s talk R.A.C.E 

I’m leaning out of the binary thinking that reviews everything through the right/wrong or yes/no lens. My thoughts on the popular writing strategy are in the “yes/and” category. Disclaimer: I am not blaming teachers who use this strategy. Instead, I hope to invite educators to consider how the method is utilized and the long-term impact on students’ writing. In short, I want to discuss this as a community because that’s how I learn. 

When I taught the RACE strategy, I abandoned research-proven strategies that I knew about writing. Yikes. I leaned heavily on product-based versus process-based writing. The impact stifled student’s creativity and voice in writing. Students became bored, and my class lost its “magic.” Sometimes, in our effort to prepare students for on-demand or standardized writing, we disconnect from the heart of writing in favor of quick tips (e.g., sentence starters, formulas).  Some teachers believe this helps students succeed on the test and don’t consider the long-term impact. No shame, this was me.

Unlearning and Relearning 

There’s a part of me struggling to accept the need for students to take standardized tests. And I know that at least at my school, that’s not an option - yet. So the question is, can teachers effectively cultivate student writing skills in a way that is transferable to standardized tests? 

I *think* so, but it starts with a strong conceptual understanding of who we are writing for and why we write. As a writing teacher, I try to view “test-taking” as a genre and apply the same thinking when navigating standardized tests. There are writing skills required to demonstrate “proficiency” on tests that are consistent with all good writing habits. What if our pedagogical approach was rooted in preparing students to write in various situations and for a variety of audiences? Writing proficiency exams would simply become another “genre” for students to study and showcase their broad repertoire of writing skills and understandings. 

In preparation, teachers would provide opportunities to understand the genre and implement strategies aligned to the purpose and audience. Easy peasy, right? This reorientation takes time and a commitment to unlearning. The papers of students I mentioned at the top of this piece were students I taught for three years. It’s a hard reality to see what stuck with them throughout the years. So what’s next?

3 Ideas for Writing Beyond the Test 

A Note. I don’t want to lose sight of my core belief that standardized tests mostly benefit testing companies with unimaginable profit lines. These tests don’t capture our students’ genius, in particular Black, Indigenous children of color. They’ve held gatekeeping abilities to funding and opportunities for schools and students, and they don’t always paint a clear picture of teaching and learning in a school. 

1. Study mentor texts. There are so many resources from previously released tests that can serve as mentor texts. I utilize them to showcase craft moves, structure, and organization. When it comes to constructed short responses, we dial in on how evidence is introduced and explained. For longer writing pieces, we study real-world texts (e.g., articles, book excerpts, blogs) and read like writers. It’s low stakes, and we can discuss questions like: 

a. What does the author do well? 
b. Which parts are easy to understand and which are not so easy? 
c. Does the author provide details that enhance the text? 
d. Which craft moves are included?

2. Leverage the writing process.  I will admit that this is where I fell short as a teacher. By overly focusing on the strategy, I lost the purpose. With all writing, we start with a topic. I teach students to interpret the prompt by determining what the question is asking them to do and how they will do it. This action is similar to the prewriting step, except the topic and purpose are stated in the prompt. 

Next, students enter the drafting phase and start organizing their ideas by thinking about their main points and where they will get the evidence. Then it’s off to drafting using the plan created. After students draft, it’s about making revisions and unlearning. I leverage mini-lessons to to help students enhance the readability and cohesion of their writing. This might look like reviewing word choice, striking through unnecessary words and phrases (e.g. my evidence is, this proves, this shows), and/or inserting additional information. Lastly, they make edits with grammar and spelling in mind and finalize the piece. 

3. Teach transferable skills. Lastly, this is all about transferability. In the spirit of transparency, I keep it real with the kids. Like really real. I empower students to reflect on testing and why it exists? We read a few different articles with multiple perspectives and I allow students to draw and challenge their conclusions. Taking a critical eye to a complex topic is a muscle I want students to flex. When thinking about raising our collective consciousness, that comes with opportunities to see, name, and challenge oppression. When students know what they are facing and why it does something to the will to persist and resist. It’s so powerful! 

There is a transferable teaching statement that is attached to every mini-lesson. This keeps things consistent with our writing block and focuses on students’ skills to hone when taking a standardized test and beyond. 

I am currently exploring bringing real-world topics that my students are interested in and using them to refine skills and get them a little practice for the test. I will note that it’s saddening to prepare students for a standardized test in a global pandemic, but this is our reality.  What are your thoughts about preparing students for standardized writing tests? I’d love to connect in the comments on this Instagram post!

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