Friday, June 03, 2005

Testing Tweaks My Brain

Okay, now I know how the ELA and Math teachers feel every spring. I don't want my life or my children's lives to be defined by The Test. I want them to do well, though. And with only a few days to go, I have to admit I'm a little obsessed. *sigh*

I initially did not want to do test-prep. My gut feeling is, they've had science class for an hour a day for three years; they know what they know. Cramming can only make us all miserable. Anyway, to me the test is most useful as a measure of my teaching & the school's science program, and if we cram and get a few more questions right as a result, that won't help me get an accurate perspective on what I taught well or what I need to improve.

Then again, this is all easy for me to think because I have this confidence that they will do all right on the test. At least, I'm confident that they'll do well enough that the Region, City, & State will leave us alone for the time being, thus allowing us to strengthen our program slowly and as we see fit. (The test is not very high stakes for the students; as far as I know, it counts only as a back-up option for promotional purposes. That means that if an eighth grader fails the ELA or Math exam but passes Science, it can be substituted to allow him or her to graduate and go to high school. None of our kids are at risk of being held over due to test scores, so it's a moot point at our school).

In the past week or so, I suddenly started to doubt. Results of practice exams weren't as good as I'd hoped. They were missing questions that I thought they should breeze through. And anyone who's ever been to college knows that cramming helps... If reviewing some of the material in the last week before the test somehow helped them retrieve information stored away in their brains back in sixth grade, why would I deny them that review? So I got out the handful of test prep books that I have on hand - a couple that I bought at Barnes & Noble, a couple that were sent by companies to our school as samples.

Once I opened the books, I panicked. So much material! Where to start?! How to prepare them best?

I looked through the results from the practice exam I gave, figured out which questions the most students missed, and then looked at those questions, figuring they'd provide some insight into what to review. The result: review damn near everything. *sigh* The kids were bad at weather maps (no surprise there; weather isn't my strong point), astronomy (I taught a lot of astronomy, but it was three years ago and stuff like the seasons and phases of the moon is kind of hard), etc.

On Tuesday, we did a review packet on energy. It was like pulling teeth. I was bored, they were bored, the kids who most need the review sank into learned helplessness and refused to engage.

Tuesday night, I thought for a while and designed a game that would provide an opportunity for review followed by an opportunity for practice. I tried to structure it so that it would motivate all the kids to engage (the danger of games is that because of speed pressure, the kids who know the material best tend to dominate, so they often do not help those kids who need more time & review). The game turned out to be way too complicated, but it did motivate the kids.

Here's what ended up working best: I condensed the long review chapters from the Barron's book into 2 page study sheets, and gave each table 20 minutes to study together. I copied test questions (related to the review material) onto transparencies and put them on the overhead projector, revealing one question at a time. Every kid's name was on a slip of paper in a beaker. I showed them a question, provided time for everyone to read it, then pulled a name out of the beaker. If the student got the question right, his or her team got a point. And so on. Since the question was on the overhead, it was easy for me to explain it if it seemed like people were having trouble with it. Some kids still didn't engage, and I'm not sure how much the whole thing will help them, but it was definitely the most palatable way to review that I could come up with.

Today, I gave them a practice test. The idea was to have them start it today and finish it Monday, as it is a two-hour test, but a lot of students finished today and the rest will finish fairly quickly on Monday. I'm going to give each table a copy of the rating guide (all of this is public on the internet for past years' tests) and have them score the tests themselves. I'm hoping that will help them learn what kinds of answers get you points and what kinds do not. Finally, I'm going to have kids who got questions right explain their reasoning to those who got them wrong, with me as a back-up explainer. That way, the review can be targeted to the questions that each child missed, rather than me choosing a few to review as a whole class.

And on Wednesday, we take the test.

I was thinking of baking them cookies and showing "Real Genius" on Thursday & Friday, but I can't find that movie at the video store (and my friend thinks there's a questionable party scene in it). Any suggestions for other silly science-related movies that 8th graders might enjoy?

*****

This is what tests do to teachers' brains: a kid can get 30 questions right and all I can see are the ten they got wrong that they should have known!

*****

Question (paraphrased somewhat): What is the name of the substances that a paper factory might produce that could harm the environment?

Student's Answer: Sawdust.

(They were looking for pollution or something similar, btw).

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