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.