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Virginia Journal of Education

But They Knew That!

How to help your students show what they know on state assessments.

by Karen Tankersley

In today’s high-accountability, high-stakes school environment, teachers are often frustrated because students have difficulty showing what they know on annual state assessments, like Virginia’s Standards of Learning tests.

Because of this intense pressure, some teachers spend countless hours on review and test preparation activities, only to find that students still do not perform as well as hoped. While teachers should certainly make sure that students have an understanding of general test-taking strategies, helping students do well on state assessments actually begins on day one of each school year. In classrooms where students excel on state tests, teachers take a different approach to planning and delivering their instruction. They weave the skills and products that students will see on state assessments into daily instruction on an ongoing basis. Classrooms where students are expected to make inferences, explain their thinking, organize and analyze information, and apply learning in deeper ways have the best chance of producing students who can meet the demands of both state assessments and a rapidly changing, competitive society. Here are five steps you can take to focus your instruction so your students can truly apply the skills they are learning in complex, reflective ways:

Know your grade level standards. Know what it is that students are expected to know and be able to do so you can determine the gap between existing performance and target performance. Study not only your own grade level content standards, but also those above and below you to get a good picture of how your standards fit into the bigger picture. What skills and understandings should students bring when they get to you? What skills and understandings will they need to be prepared for the next grade? Talk to your peers about the meaning of each standard. Do you all agree on what instruction for this standard should look like for your grade level? What level of mastery is needed for this standard for your students? What strategies and tactics are your peers using to help students learn or master these standards?

Some standards might have a lot of room for interpretation, so discussing the grade level expectation for each one might be an excellent way to build consistency with your students. Since students are not “one-size-fits-all” learners, sharing instructional strategies can help everyone be more effective. Spend time talking with the grade levels above and below you to make sure that you are receiving students with the skills you need as well as providing students who are ready to move to higher levels of skill and understanding. By talking about what should be emphasized more or less, each grade level can focus on the skills and strategies that will provide the support needed to scaffold instruction.

Understand what students will be asked to do on the state assessment. Check sample items from old SOL tests, which can be found on the Virginia Department of Education website ( Study several publicly released versions of the test, if possible, to get a feel for what types of tasks your students are likely to be seeing each year. What concepts and terms are students expected to know? What types of products will they be asked to produce or use as prompts? Will they be expected to draw conclusions, identify examples of personification or to summarize information? Will they be asked to compare and contrast information or interpret graphs or charts? What writing formats or genres are students expected to process or be able to use in their own work? Might they need to use or be familiar with narrative, comparative, descriptive, poetic, expository or persuasive styles of writing? What type of responses will they be expected to create during the assessment? Will they be expected to respond with short answers, an essay, a diary entry, a memo or an e-mail, a letter, an opinion paper, or by performing a more complex task?

When you understand what students will be expected to know and be able to do on the assessment, you can be sure that these skills are embedded in daily instruction. Preparing for “the test” doesn’t just begin a couple of months before it’s given. It’s an ongoing process. Students should be using the same type of thinking they will need on “the test” throughout the school year. When teachers use this approach, students are already familiar with how they will be expected to respond on the state assessment.

Determine what students know and can do and where the gaps exist. Most districts are now adopting quarterly or even monthly benchmark tests to help teachers get a more detailed picture of what students have already mastered. There is no need to waste our limited instructional time on concepts that the majority of the group has already mastered. Standards-based teaching requires teachers to use a more "diagnostic-prescriptive" approach to their lesson planning. Determine what your students already know and take them to a higher level through scaffolded instruction. Use the state standards as “minimal” concepts that all students must master rather than the goal of instruction.

Teach for deeper understanding. With information exploding exponentially each year, we must go beyond simply helping our students understand facts. They need to understand how to locate, extract, analyze and evaluate information, and then apply their understandings to develop appropriate responses or solutions to problems. Precise, diagnostic lesson planning involves identifying the gaps in student learning and then creating lessons directed to close those gaps. Ask yourself what students should be able to do after instruction that they couldn’t do beforehand. Precision teaching requires that you have a very concrete goal for student performance in mind for each and every lesson. Feedback is important to creating deeper learning. In addition to providing their own feedback to students on how to improve performance, effective teachers also teach their students how to independently self-assess and adjust their own performance. They create assessments and student-friendly scoring rubrics to help both student and teacher measure student progress. They then teach students how to provide constructive feedback not only to one another but also to themselves as they self-reflect. When students evaluate and assess their own work, they develop more comprehensive insights about what they need to do to move to the next level of performance. This is how we prepare students to think deeply and reflectively.

Focus your thinking by listing the topics and understandings in your content area that seem to be difficult for your students. Some questions to ask yourself include: What products can students do well and what will they need more work on for state assessments? What vocabulary or terms will students are expected to know or use? Are they already using this vocabulary or will I need to teach it? What foundational skills or understandings will my students need to shoot for excellence in this standard? Can they use charts, graphs, text passages, pictures, historical documents, or summarize concept-dense material? If not, it will be essential to weave these materials and their use into daily instruction. What problems might students have in processing the material or the understandings that will be necessary for these items? How can I more effectively frontload my students foundational skills? For example, if students are given a historical document and asked to draw conclusions about that document then they must have frequent opportunities during the school year to do just that. If students will be expected to read and interpret data or draw a mathematical conclusion from a given data set, they must also have frequent opportunities to do just that. What skills will need to be woven into your daily instruction to give students the practice they will need to be successful?

Model how to answer constructed response items. For most students, constructed response questions are the most difficult type of questions to answer. In many content areas, students are given broad questions that require them to blend their background knowledge, their ability to think and process information, and then create a unique response. We call these “global" questions because they require a broad and comprehensive understanding of the material. For example, students might be given a prompt such as, "After reading the article, summarize the author's viewpoint on topic X." To respond, students must read and understand the article, interpret the writer’s viewpoint and then synthesize these ideas into a couple of sentences. This is a complex process, with many skills required to prepare an appropriate response.

We can teach students how to do this throughout the year as they work with text in class. To respond to a global question, students need to be able to read and summarize the information and overall gist of the article. This is the first skill that must be taught. Second, they must be able to analyze the author’s viewpoint from the info given. Again, this is a complex task that takes some practice to learn. Finally, the student must create a written response that addresses the prompt in an insightful and appropriate way. Clearly, this is a demanding task for even our brightest students, even more so for students who come to us with poor skills, poor background knowledge, or the need for second language development. As a result, the skills students will need must be modeled and specifically taught in the classroom. When students are used to providing detailed responses such as these during the course of daily instruction, it will be second nature to perform these tasks on state assessments.

Another common element of constructed response prompts on state tests is to require students to "use examples and details" from the story to support their answer. Answering questions of this type requires that students understand the passage, be able to return to the text to scan for specific information, and then use the information to develop a complex response. Again teachers must specifically teach these skills and approaches in an ongoing manner, if they expect their students to do well on them at assessment time.

Here is a way that we can help students improve their ability to scan text and develop an independent response that includes details and examples. Select a short article with an appropriate topic and reading level from a newspaper, magazine or the Internet. Project the articles so that you can model a think-aloud process for your students. Read the article aloud the first time without comment. Then, display a question that is to be answered as a result of reading the article. Talk through the question, what you have understood from the article and how you will approach locating the information needed to create a response. Understanding the question and the approach needed to construct a response before scanning the text helps students focus specifically on the steps they should take to respond to the prompt. Continue to orally describe your thinking for students as you scan the text for specific information and clue words that might help answer the question. As you re-read sections of the text, slow down your thought process so students can hear your ideas and analysis. Say exactly what you are thinking so that students can hear how an effective learner reflects on the text as they read and formulate a response. Model jotting down some notes that pertain to the topic on the nearby whiteboard if possible. By helping students "listen in," you are modeling how a "successful thinker" processes text. Continue to provide examples and think aloud with appropriate material until you feel students are getting the concept and are able to practice on their own. When you are finished, model how to use a rubric to both improve and evaluate your work.

You may also want to demonstrate highlighting or underlining information that might help answer the question prompts as you work through various passages. Once you’ve identified how to locate information in the passage, move to constructing an appropriate response in the same manner. Again, orally model your thinking and analysis. At some point, take time to also model how to incorporate quotations or citations from the passage within a response as well, since these are also common tasks that students may be asked to do on state assessments.

After you have sufficiently modeled the tasks, begin asking students to orally model their own thinking and response creation with a partner. Provide a rubric and ask students to provide helpful suggestions and critiques to one another. After you have presented this technique and students have practiced it extensively, begin to incorporate the same type of questioning into your own daily instruction. Continue to weave questions like:

    •  “What are three reasons that…"
    •   "What do X and Y have in common?"
    •   "Give me evidence to support your answer."
    •   “How could we summarize that?”
    •   “What makes you think that?”

These types of questions require students to go deeper into their thinking to develop complex responses. Require students to provide evidence to support their answers on a regular basis by providing the specific page and paragraph where they found the information in what they have read. When students have to justify their response with hard evidence, they are less likely to toss out answers in hopes of hitting the correct one. This process will also enable you to see how they are connecting ideas and provide a window into their learning. Their ongoing learning will be preparing them to think in the way that they will need to at assessment time as well.

By knowing your grade level standards thoroughly, understanding what students will be asked to do on the assessments they take, determining what skills they already possess and what gaps need to be filled, and modeling how to develop complex responses, you will be teaching for deeper understanding on a daily basis. When students are better prepared to not only show what they know and are able to do on state assessments, teachers will be able to worry less about those annual state assessments and more on helping their students become deep and critical thinkers who are ready to take their place in the 21st century world.

Tankersley, an expert in literacy and a faculty member at Arizona State University, is the author of Tests that Teach: Using Standardized Tests to Improve Instruction (ASCD, 2007) and The Threads of Reading: Strategies for Literacy Development (ASCD, 2003). She can be contacted through her website:


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