Teaching English to Takers of AYP Tests

Ten years ago, U.S. teachers grumbled about “teaching to the test” as administrators told them, repeatedly, how important it was for the school to make annual yearly progress—the dreaded “AYP.” The worst part for us ELL/ESL specialists is that our students only have one year from their enrollment date in an English-speaking school to either not take the English language arts portion or take the reading/writing in their native language, despite the fact that learning a new language through a school environment can take much longer.

For those intervening years, we’re allowed to use few accommodations beyond word-for-word translations and interpreters, and these usually aren’t allowed for the English language arts sections. But that often doesn’t account for how our students may not be familiar with the tests’ formats. Most ESL teachers prefer to have students fill in the blanks or do short writings to get the most out of our assessments, which requires more analysis than the standardized test-graders are willing to make.

So while we may hate teaching to the test, we should consider teaching our students how to take tests. That may seem like an odd suggestion, unless you remember that there are tutoring services specifically focused on teaching test-taking skills. A little understanding of how these tests work can go a long way towards making them less strange for your students.

There are some specific tips and techniques that may help our students do the best they can to decode strange questions and make sense of multiple answers. Some techniques are:

1. Emphasize the importance of the test. Your students may not hear about the test until it becomes a school-wide issue, and if it’s their first year in your school—or even your state—they may not know what all the excitement is about. By explaining the value of the test to your school, you may encourage them to get a good night’s sleep and eat a healthy breakfast before coming to school on test day.

2. Examine multiple choice. I have a lesson for my students where we look at the parts of a multiple choice problem instead of just picking a letter. I focus on how one answer is usually so ridiculous we can just reject it. Next, we target the answer that is the opposite of what’s right. After that, our goal is to examine the two remaining answers to differentiate the “good” one from the “great” one.

3. Annotate reading passages. Most states (particularly Pennsylvania) allows students to mark up their test booklets during reading activities. I model reading the questions before, so they know what will be asked, and then reading the passage. Now that we know what’s being asked, we can underline main ideas, circle relevant details, and put marks next to details that seem important.

4. Skipping may be the best move. The AYP exams are often written in rather dense academic English, and it’s not uncommon for students to be completely confounded by some words even with the help of translation. Time is always a factor, so tell students to skip the particularly frustrating questions for the ones they can understand. They are better off reviewing in the time left after they reach the last question, before the proctor tells them to close the books.

About Nathan Hall

Nathan Hall
Nathan Hall, MA TESOL, MS Education, lives in Pottstown, PA with his wife and two daughters. He has been involved in ESL since he volunteered as a tutor in 2001, which inspired him to leave the field of journalism for education. He has since taught English language learners in a variety of settings ranging from community programs to colleges as well as in several different types of middle schools and high schools. He is currently an ELL specialist at Achievement House Cyber Charter School in Exton, PA.
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2 Responses to Teaching English to Takers of AYP Tests

  1. Christine S. says:

    I found this blog post very interesting because I teach high school English in Virginia. Here, students must pass an End of Course Reading Standards of Learning test and an End of Course Writing Standards of Learning test; I teach to prepare my students for the reading test.

    You mention in your article that you review multiple choice with your students. I’m curious- do you have them annotate the questions for key words? I’ve found with my EL students that sometimes they don’t know what the question is even asking because they don’t know what the verb “analyze” means or something. And not all of our EL students are allowed to use dictionaries. Also, our students take their reading test on the computer, so they can’t really annotate. I mean, they do use the highlighting tool, but I’ve found that it’s hard to get them to understand that they need to use their scratch paper and write down key words from the questions and key concepts from the articles/texts they’re being tested on.

    Thanks for the reminder, too, about explicitly telling them to prepare for the test by sleeping and getting enough to eat/drink! Honestly, the earlier in the year we review test taking, the better I’ve found my students do because they’re comfortable with the expectations. If I teach them annotating on scratch paper in September and we just do it regularly throughout the year on every classroom quiz or test, they’re completely comfortable with that practice and feel more at ease. EL students (and really all students) are already nervous about high stakes test, so it’s our job to prepare them as best we can and make them feel as confident as possible!

  2. Carola Ortiz says:

    Teaching students how to take these kinds of tests is really important because their usual content may terrify a novice student and even some experienced learners have to overcome the fear and stress caused by language tests. Thanks for posting these tips.

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