In an ideal learner-centered environment, assessment is seamlessly integrated with learning and produces new learning as a result. Assessments are crafted with the goal of capturing evidence of learning for intended, thoughtfully selected outcomes. Evidence of student learning is used to provide all students with feedback on their learning, as well as inform teacher’s instructional decisions. Students are asked to show their learning in a variety of ways, at multiple moments, and in ways that are meaningful to them. The information collected from these assessments is accurate, fair, and trustworthy. Students spend an appropriate amount of time on assessments.
Balancing the vision for the best of what assessment can be with the reality of what assessment currently is presents school communities with a variety of challenges, depending on their assets and needs. Those challenges are amplified when student performance on large-scale standardized tests is linked to teacher evaluation, salary, and even to the existence of the school itself. Conditions like these can lead educators to feel pressured to prepare students for the state tests by engaging in test prep instruction and practices. It is possible, though, to negotiate the space between authentic, meaningful assessment and large-scale standardized tests.
Finding a livable space is about focusing on the students’ experiences beyond the day of one particular test or exam. A reasoned approach that supports students where they are – and where we want them to be – focuses on metacognition, self-regulation, and thinking of testing as a genre unto itself.
To understand what that can look like, it’s helpful to distinguish learner-centered test prep from, well, the other kind; the kind that is handed down from teacher to teacher through the language of school and is done by rote, often with little discussion about why it happens or the best way to do it.
How can you help ensure a learner-centered approach to your test prep?
We recognize the potential difficulty of meshing the needs of preparing for state tests and final exams with keeping a learner-centered focus in the classroom. The following eight questions can help teachers think about their approach, and include things they can do to shift towards learner-centeredness.
1: Why are teachers using a particular test prep activity with students?
In workbook focused test prep, the goal is to finish the activities or “polish” students’ mastery of a specific skill. When the focus is shifted to learner-centered test prep, the goal likewise shifts to transferring already taught and learned skills and understandings to the testing format. For teachers reconsidering their approach to high stakes assessments, it’s helpful to identify the skills that will endure beyond the day of the test. These skills include things like plotting how they’ll spend their time, deductive reasoning, reducing their anxiety through positive self-talk, and using evidence to support an answer. If it feels like a stretch to see how a particular activity extends beyond the day of a test, it likely needs revision and reconsideration.
2: How are teachers describing test taking activities?
One of the other key differences between rote or traditional test prep and learner-centered test prep lies in the pronouns the teacher uses. In traditional test prep, the focus is on the one right way to answer a question or the use of a specific strategy. For example, a teacher might say “this is how you answer this type of question” or “here’s the right way to solve the problem.”
In contrast, learner-centered test prep, the focus is on exploring individual student approaches and strategies. This means that the teacher models that different strategies can work for different students in order to provide a way for students to think about their own thinking and learning. This means shifting language to “this is what I’m thinking as I take this test” or “this is what the skill looks like in normal circumstances but this is what the skill looks like for the test” and then asking, “what strategy works for you?” Making this shift may require a teacher to do some self-reflection about how they take a test and what their approach is. Taking an old high school exit exam or a practice SAT is a useful way to identify our stressors and strategies as test-takers.
Additionally, teachers may find it helpful to hold a parents’ night to walk them through their approach to preparing for state tests. This conversation is about inviting parents to see test prep as a way for their child to better understand themselves and how they self-regulate during challenging tasks. The topic itself may provoke conversation and strong emotions so it’s best to check with building and/or district administration about the nature of the meeting.
3. What’s the climate in the classroom around the large-scale tests?
The classroom climate can reflect a traditional or learner-centered approach. In classroom conversations that touch upon or mention the tests, an observer might hear a focus on individual students doing their best. The minimum standard (i.e. Level 3 or proficiency) is treated as a target or goal for all students.
In contrast, in conversations in classrooms that attend to learner-centered practices, the focus is on the community and on ensuring that students know they are supported above and beyond any test. If scores or performance levels are mentioned, they are framed as part of a bigger picture or series of data points. Visual displays around data based goals clearly communicate that state test scores are one of many. In a tangible sense, this means celebrations of learning unrelated to state tests are as big as – or bigger – than those for the state tests.
4: How are teachers and administrations talking about the large-scale tests?
School leaders are responsible for complex systems and must attend to a multitude of obligations. In systems where administrators feel pressured to attend to student scores or risk losing their jobs, this can translate into pressure on teachers. Even when that pressure doesn’t exist, negotiating conversations with administrators around test prep can be thorny and informed by interpersonal relationships.
One step teachers can take is talking openly about preparing students for tests and getting a sense of administrators’ mental models around the concept of “test prep” itself. Asking questions like, ‘What are you hoping to see in our classrooms the week before the tests?” or getting their feedback on a letter home to parents can help uncover shared understandings or areas where more discussion is warranted.
Even for schools where scores aren’t an issue, finding the balance between routine test prep and learner-centered practices can be a challenge. A common claim in environments with routine test prep is “Focus on good instruction and the tests will take care of themselves.” Yet, a leading cause of student anxiety is a fear of the unknown or feeling unprepared. So even in communities where most students will “do fine,” there will be students who feel anxious. Explicitly talking about the need to transfer skills and applying them in a particular way on the day of the test can go a long way towards supporting learner-centered practices. Teachers who feel they need additional research or information before approaching administrators are welcome to send questions to email@example.com.
5. How much is too much?
Adopting a learner-centered approach to test prep is not unlike training to be an Olympic weightlifter. You are asking students to lift a heavy cognitive load in order to train for a particular event. Being good at lifting a particular weight, at a particular time, in a particular way seems like a useless skill. However, by virtue of doing the training, athletes get stronger and healthier. The “weightlifting” of preparing for tests and exams seems like a meaningless task that is only applicable in a certain situation at a certain time, but the benefits of metacognition remain long after the test is over. At the same time, it is possible to over-train. Even Olympic athletes cross-train by working on flexibility and endurance.
Test prep should not become the center of a student’s learning experience. Our first goal is move students closer to mastery of state learning standards. In the weeks leading up to the tests, our goal becomes helping them shift that mastery to a particular medium. Engaging students in a short cycle of self-study before the tests can get at variety of skills including data collection, self-reflection, and understanding cause and effect.
6: How are teachers supporting students of color or those who experience stereotype threat?
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, a demarcation between schools that do testing prep “right” versus “rote” is how they attend to the needs of students from stereotyped groups (for example, children of color, children who experience poverty, anxious students with high expectations for themselves). The rote approach is to treat test prep as if there is one method that works for all students regardless of their needs. In learner-centered test prep, teachers thoughtfully seek out resources around stereotype threat and engage with students and their families around their specific needs and concerns. There are multiple resources on this topic, including the helpful website reducingstereotypethreat.org.
All learners, regardless of age or ability, are best served by curriculum-embedded, authentic, and meaningful assessment. Even with large-scale standardized tests, it’s possible to work towards a vision in which students routinely experience assessments that measure what matters. Balancing the vision with reality requires establishing a plan or approach to preparing the students for the tests at the beginning of the year and thinking past the test to focus on skills related to metacognition and self-regulation. Doing so is not only helpful for school staff and students; it’s necessary.
Are you looking to go deeper?
For teachers looking for practical tips on learner-centered test prep, LCI is offering a free webinar on March 2 at 3pm EST. Register online at tinyurl.com/LciMarch17.
Supporting Student Self-Regulation for State Tests and Exams: Three Instructional Strategies provides an overview of the mix of assessments and assessment moments within a balanced system and situates high-state tests within that framework. It presents theories of ethical test prep and strategies based on those theories. Teachers will learn to help students understand themselves as test-takers and prepare for tests accordingly; the use and techniques of self-priming to reduce test anxiety; and the effect of stereotype threat and how to regulate against it.
Giselle O. Martin-Kniep’s chapter in the Handbook of Neuroleadership, Neuroscience of engagement and SCARF: why they matter to schools provides further context on self-regulation and its impact on learning.
Our tool, Supporting Metacognition, can help educators build this skill in their students.