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This post originally appeared on Edutopia, a site created by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, dedicated to improving the K-12 learning process by using digital media to document, disseminate, and advocate for innovative, replicable strategies that prepare students. View Original >


Standardized testing is one of the “lighting rod” issues in educational policy debates. Whether it’s a group of teachers boycotting a test in Seattle, districts across the United States tying teacher evaluations to test results, the new PARCC or Smarter Balanced Assessments being implemented, the ranking countries with PISA scores, or the SAT trying to revamp itself, the debate and topic of standardized testing simply will not go away. So what is an educator to do? With all these forces in play, whether at the district or federal level, it can be disheartening and daunting for an educator to create learning in the classroom. With all the changes, there is always pressure to teach to the test. But I think we can do better.

Encourage Higher Order Thinking
Standardized tests hit a huge range of depth of knowledge or cognitive levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy. Often a prompt may just be focusing on recall or comprehension, or inference at best. There might be some more critical thinking prompts, but those won’t necessarily dominate the standardized assessment. I believe that we, as educators, should be aiming higher, beyond what a test demands. When we aim higher, we are preparing our students for more than a test — we’re preparing them for 21st century skills paired with content.

To do this, educators need to make sure that the assessments and projects they assign their students are rigorous and focused on depth of knowledge and/or higher levels of Bloom’s. To get there, students will indeed have to do the lower levels of thinking, but we can’t just stop there. Instead, the lower level thinking should serve as scaffolding for higher order thinking. Let’s aim higher than what a standardized test might ask of our students, ensuring that they’re not only ready for the test, but more than ready for college, career and life!

Embed “Test Prep”
Instead of wasting everyone’s time prepping for the exam right before it happens, embed test prep into your daily instruction. Try to make it a meaningful assessment tool while still practicing for the test. For example, you can look at the standardized test to find the stems. Steal these stems and use them to create formative and/or summative assessments for a more engaging project or unit. These might be short-answer or multiple-choice questions, or longer essay-like questions. As a teacher, these small, low-stakes, test-like questions can help you effectively check for understanding. They also help your students become familiar with how the standardized test will look and what it will feel like. Don’t forget to be transparent — show your students how this will be like the standardized test, but also explain why you are using these questions in your instruction.

Error Analysis for Reflective Instruction
Error analysis is an excellent and intentional way to look at the student performance data for patterns and trends, and then use this data to prepare for instruction in an upcoming unit, whether that is a unit next year or next week. Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey, two of my favorite education authors, articulate the process in “Making Time for Feedback,” an article that appeared in Educational Leadership.

So how does this fit in with standardized tests? Standardized test items should be aligned to a standard, which means the data is disaggregated into these different performance areas. Once students have taken the standardized test, the data is given back to the teacher, and the teacher should be looking at it to make informed decisions on instruction. In this case, it is often for the next year, but the data might also inform remedial instruction. Regardless, teachers can aim beyond the standardized test as just a summative assessment, and instead use it as a tool to reflect upon instruction and meet the needs of individual students.

Instead of just viewing standardized testing as “scary beast,” we can do our best not only to make it useful through error analysis, but also to prepare students for it in meaningful ways and with instruction that’s better than just test prep. We don’t need to be focusing on test prep — we need to be focusing on our students and effective instruction!

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This post originally appeared on Edutopia, a site created by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, dedicated to improving the K-12 learning process by using digital media to document, disseminate, and advocate for innovative, replicable strategies that prepare students. View Original >


Being a mentor teacher to a teaching candidate is quite a privilege and honor, as you are integral in nurturing and helping that new teacher to reflect and improve upon his or her instruction. I recently reached out to fellow mentor teachers and asked them about their advice and best practices, not only for teacher mentors, but also for new teachers in the field. Here are some great quotes and points from these practicing mentors.

For New Teachers
Make Relationships with the Right People
Ted Malefyt is a middle school science teacher for Hamilton Community Schools in Michigan. He has a passion for project-based learning that creates relevant learning. He tells us to “build working relationships with the forward-thinking teachers who are excited about being a life-long learner.” I remember that, when I first started teaching, there were some teachers who were often negative. I chose not to align with them, as I knew it would not help me nurture myself, nor remain hopeful about education. It’s important to find colleagues that, although they may challenge you, still have the best interests of students at heart, and are hopeful about their roles as teachers. Build relationships with reflective, life-long learners to become one!

Make Sure You Really Want to Teach
Heather Anderson is an English and Spanish teacher at the Health and Sciences High and Middle College in San Diego, California. She has expertise in gradual release of responsibility, close reading and text-dependent questions. She echoes a core belief that I think all potential educators need to consider — make sure you really want to be a teacher. “First and foremost, make sure that this is the career for you. I think that many beginning teachers have a sense of grandeur that does not meet the reality of the classroom. Make sure you visit schools before you student teach. We learn a lot of theory in our classes, but the actual implementation and day-to-day grind of teaching is very different than those courses you took in college.” I really do agree with the advice to visit schools before jumping into a program. Set up interviews or coffee with a teacher friend and ask great questions.

For Mentor Teachers
Be Patient and Compassionate
As a veteran teacher, it can be hard to remember what it was like as a brand new teacher, or one considering jumping into the profession. Sometimes we focus so much on the technical side of becoming a teacher that we forget the social-emotional component. Heather reminds us, “New teachers are eager and passionate. They are also extremely scared and delicate. They need someone that they can trust. They need someone that they can celebrate with and also someone who will let them express their fears and concerns.” Give new teachers the benefit of the doubt, be honest in feedback, and give time for improvement. After all, we were all there at some time.

Nurture Unit and Lesson Design
Sometimes we focus too much on delivery of the lesson rather than the design of the lesson itself. As mentor teachers, seek opportunities to let teacher candidates design or co-design lessons and units. I wrote about this belief in a previous blog. Ted says, “Providing as many opportunities as we can to design and create for the classroom is very important in changing the culture of education.” I couldn’t agree more.

For All Teachers
Become a Reader
I was not much of a reader when I first entered teaching. I think it was because I was “forced” to read material that I didn’t find relevant. However, the more I looked for great books on education or got recommendations from colleagues, the more I was able to re-find that love of reading. As Ted says “I also highly recommend becoming an avid reader of books that deal with everything from education to innovation and creativity.” There are so many books on education out there. Find something that works for you and that will push your thinking. It will help to keep you energized and model life-long learning for your students.

“Fail Forward”
Almost all the mentor teachers I talked to reminded me of a phrase I use often, to “fail forward.” They expressed that all mistakes they made were part of the journey. As Heather says, “Teaching is a dance. You change your style and movements depending on your partner. With each student and each classroom dynamic, you, in essence, have a new partner.” We all have good days and bad days, but every day we touch the lives of children, and we can learn from these moments to improve education for all.

Leverage Social Media
There is so much that social media has to offer teachers, both experienced and new. Build your PLN, participate in Twitter chats, read blogs and find resources. There are great ideas out there, and we can support each other. Consider sharing your ideas in a blog as well, if you’re comfortable putting yourself out there.

I would love to hear more from mentor teachers, both in terms of the role they play and their advice for anyone considering the teaching profession. I believe that, although there is a formal mentor teacher in the student-teaching phase, we are all mentor teachers, and we have much to learn from each other.

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