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Dos & Don'ts for Teaching to the Test

Bronx Classroom Tales

Dos & Don'ts for Teaching to the TestAs the State Regents Exams draw close, it’s time to start teaching to the test if you haven’t already.

Those who don’t fall into the trap of test prep turn their noses up arguing that students should have learned the skills to pass an exam without ever having seen the likes of it before. The rest of us realize that with students entering 9th grade on a 5th grade reading level, two years is not enough time to get them ready to pass an 11th grade Literacy exam cold.

In fact, even private college preparatory schools will give their students old copies of the exam before the actual test day just to get them familiar with it. The big difference being that these students may spend a weekend preparing for an English Regents test whereas, my students may spend up to a semester.


Take Cesar. Cesar arrived in New York two years ago speaking no English. He lives with his Spanish-speaking family, lives in a Spanish speaking neighborhood and his friends at school all speak Spanish. This year, Cesar has to pass the English Regents, in English, if he wants to graduate from high school. He can take the science, math and history exams in Spanish, but taking the English exam in another language would clearly defeat the purpose.

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So, for Cesar, it’s test prep. We can’t chance him understanding the task to “write a unified essay about childhood memories as revealed in the passages” and “using evidence from each passage, develop [a] controlling idea and show how the author uses specific literary elements or techniques to convey that idea,” the first time he sees it.


As high school teachers, particularly those of us teaching 9th grade, it’s hard to break the habit middle school teachers have instilled in students to pass the 8th grade English Exam. Starting paragraphs with “In this paragraph I am going to tell you why…” must be a guaranteed ticket to pass.

In my own way, I also teach tricks like this which will get students through an exam but not necessarily ready for college. Shortcuts taught in test prep are not band-aids for the problem. They are more like a wet piece of paper stuck over a wound which may or may not cut off bleeding. As an emerging-master-wet-paper applier, I’m well aware that some students just won’t pass, that the paper just won’t stick. However, it’s the best solution we’ve come up for “emergency patients” like Cesar and others.


For those of you in the test prep game, here is some advice:


1) Do try to incorporate test-like questions or skill-building into the fantastic content you’ve chosen for the rest of the year (if you indeed have had the privilege of choosing content). This reduces the amount of time needed to cram.


2) Don’t get too discouraged, because you ARE teaching some skills, even if they are very specific.


3) Do expose all students to practice tests whether they be SAT or 3rd grade Science State Exams. This cuts down on test anxiety and intimidation.


4) Don’t show your scorn for state test mandates to students. They are quick to pick up on this. Whether or not you agree with your state’s standards or how they are assessed, contempt does not get you far.


Turn your booklet over, you may now begin.

How do you start prepping your students for their state tests? Share in the comments section!