Social Justice Test Prep?

I teach at a school in New York City where approximately 50% of students "opted out" of state exams last year. I'm proud to be a part of a school community where families are using their power to send a message to our state policymakers and lawmakers about the overuse of standardized testing.

That said, I still have roughly half of my students who take the state test and no matter how I feel about the tests, I want them to feel ready. As third graders this is the first year they sit for state exams. For many of them it is a daunting task. There is a mix of anxiety and curiosity as tests approach.

I have taught at schools where meaningful, engaging instruction practically ground to a halt starting in January. In place of our ordinary reading and writing workshop we transitioned to non-stop test prep. Students would read passage after passage, answer countless multiple choice questions, and write draft after draft of short and extended responses. This was a joyless and painful time in the year.

So, yes, I want my students to feel ready. But, no, I will not sacrifice their love of learning (or my love of teaching) to do this.

Instead I create a short, four or five week unit connected to a social justice theme. Last year in honor of Women's History Month the focus was on women's history and gender equity. Ordinarily over the course of an ELA unit my students do most of their reading in books they select independently. To integrate test prep skills into this unit the readings came primarily from short passages. I used and as well as photo-copied passages to teach my students about Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth and many other heroic women.

As they read these passages they answered multiple-choice questions and also short response questions. They learned and practiced the same critical thinking skills as readers and writers as other points of the year, but also gained a familiarity with the unique structure of standardized tests.

Their final performance task was a letter in response to a prompt modeled after the type they would see on the New York State ELA exam. Their task was to write a letter in favor of putting a woman on the 20 dollar bill. This was connected to the larger Women on 20s campaign that was happening at the time (and is continuing today).

For some teachers any form of test prep is unconscionable. But in my mind there's nothing inherently wrong with short passages, multiple choice questions or responding to writing prompts. The real problem lies in removing all context from reading and writing. Having students read a non-fiction text about snow one day, a Native American myth the next and a random passage from Cam Jansen the following day creates a disjointed and inauthentic environment for reading and writing. When I had to do test prep in this way the students and I would get exhausted and frustrated.

On the other hand, reading and responding to texts that are tied together by a theme related to social justice has kept my students and I just as motivated as any other unit. Last year, we celebrated the end of this unit with a celebration where we invited the whole school to vote between three candidates - Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth and Rachel Carson - to put on the 20 dollar bill. The celebration included a bake sale where we raised money for Girls for Gender Equity, a New York City-based non-profit that works for the physical, psychological, social, and economic development of girls and women.

I honestly don't know if my students even realized they were doing test prep, because they were having so much fun! In fact at the end of the school year, when the news broke that the US Treasury Department would place a woman on the 10 dollar bill, my students felt empowered. This is a huge change from the test prep that took place in my previous classrooms.

So this year, as the state test looms ahead, I'm working once ahead to prepare all my students who might take the test, but doing my best to keep learning fun and relevant as always. Over the next four weeks we'll be studying endangered frog species, while making connections to climate change, pollution and environmental racism.

If all goes well, they'll be ready for the test in April, and maybe we'll change the world a little while we're at it!

This post was originally published on The Educator's Room.


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