Tag Archives: test prep

Rethinking Test Prep

I don’t know about you, but here in Texas we’ve got a state math test in grades 3, 4, and 5 coming up soon. The 5th grade test is taking place in mid-April followed by the 3rd and 4th grade tests in mid-May. In my school district, we used to stop instruction for one to two weeks prior to the test to focus on review. It’s always rubbed me the wrong way, and this year we changed that. If you want to read more about our rationale for doing that, I recommend reading Playing the Long Game, a post I wrote on my district blog. I also recommend checking out my Ignite talk from NCSM 2017. The work I’m sharing here has been a chance for me to put into practice the principles I shared in that talk.

If you don’t have time for all that right now and you’d rather check out the review activities I’ve created and get access to them for yourself, read on!

This year, with the help of our district instructional coaches, I put together collections of 15-20 minute spiral review activities that can be used daily for a month or so before the state test to review critical standards and prepare students without interrupting the momentum of regular math instruction. Here they are:

(Note: If you want to modify an activity, you are free to do so. Either make a copy of the file in your Google drive or download a copy to your computer. You will have full editing rights of your copy.)

When you look at an activity, it might look short. You might ask yourself, “How could this possibly take 15-20 minutes?” Good question! These activities are designed for student discourse. Students can and should be talking regularly during these activities. The goal is for students to be noticing, wondering, questioning, analyzing, sharing, and convincing  each other out loud. These discussions create opportunities to revisit concepts, clear up misconceptions, and raise awareness of the idiosyncrasies of the test questions, especially with regards to language.

Most of the activities are low or no prep, though here and there a few activities need some pages printed ahead of time. Be sure to read through an activity before facilitating it in your class so you don’t catch yourself unprepared.

Each collection of activities is organized around the Texas state standards (also known as TEKS). If you don’t live in Texas, you still might find these activities useful since there’s so much overlap between our standards and others. To help non-Texans navigate, I’ve added a column that (very) briefly describes the concept associated with each activity. If you’re interested in reading the actual TEKS each activity is aligned to, check out these documents:

If you try any of these activities out with your students, let me know how it goes in the comments. Enjoy!

Exploring MTBoS: Mission #1

Starting this week I’m taking off on an 8-week adventure Exploring the MathTwitterBlogosphere (Explore MTBoS for short). I’ve been loosely connected to the MTBoS since last August when Dan Meyer encouraged educators to start blogging. Like many people, I went all in for a while, but then life got in the way, and I haven’t really maintained my blog so much lately. Thanks to the Explore MTBoS program, I will at least be blogging and making connections for the next eight weeks, and perhaps it will give me the motivation to keep it going after the eight weeks are up.

Mission #1

We had to choose from two prompts. I chose:

What is one thing that happens in your classroom that makes it distinctly yours? It can be something you do that is unique in your school…It can be something more amorphous…However you want to interpret the question! Whatever!

For whoever happens to read my blog for the next part of this mission, I’m actually out of the classroom currently. I was an elementary school teacher for 8 years, and for the past four years I’ve been a math curriculum developer. However, just because I’m out of the classroom doesn’t mean my memory has gone foggy or anything.

With regards to math education in particular, what made my classroom distinctly mine, even though I got the idea from a co-teacher, was Problem of the Day (or P.O.D. as my kids liked to call it). As the name implies, the students were presented a new problem at the beginning of every math class.

At the time, I had a specific goal for doing Problem of the Day. The high stakes test in Texas, the TAKS test (which is now the STAAR), had six objectives and the sixth objective was called “Mathematical Processes and Tools”. It was a doozy of an objective because it wasn’t really about any particular math concepts. Rather it was about asking students a variety of questions that required problem solving and reasoning. Supposedly having good teaching methods while teaching the core content was enough to prepare students for Objective 6, but after many years in the classroom I knew that my students could easily be thrown for a loop by those questions. So during Problem of the Day I often used Objective 6 questions from released TAKS tests.

(As an aside: Looking back, I’m not proud that I focused on doing this for test prep. I am not a fan of high stakes tests, but the reality at the time is that it was my responsibility to prepare my students and this is the method I chose to try. As it turns out, it worked out amazingly well, and I see now that I could use Problem of the Day, or a related structure, to actually enhance my general math teaching.)

So as I said, I presented a new problem every day. Our school used a problem solving structure called FQSR (Facts, Question, Solve, Reflect). My students would divide their paper into a grid and label each section F, Q, S, or R to represent their work in that section. The first thing they had to do after they read the problem was to write down whatever facts they felt would help them solve the problem. Then they had to write the question they were being asked. (This actually made for some great conversation and also gave me some wonderful insights into how students comprehended what they were reading.) Next, they had to solve the problem in whatever way made sense to them. Finally, they had to write a response (reflection) that explained why they did what they did and what their answer to the question was.

When they were done, they would bring it up to me to read over their work. I wouldn’t tell them if they were correct or incorrect. Rather, I would ask them questions or point out where I was confused while looking at their work. The student would go sit down and use my questioning to continue working on their solution. Sometimes they would start over, sometimes they would elaborate more in their reflection, whatever they felt they needed to do. If I got a line of students waiting to see me, it was their job to share their work with each other in line while I continued reviewing work. Sometimes students would come up and see me 3, 4, or even 5 times to continue getting feedback on their solution. All the while, I never verified whether their answer was correct.

After it seemed like most of the class was ready to continue, we moved to the presentation phase where students got up and shared their solution with the class. They stood up at the front and shared their work using our document camera. I stood in the back to make it clear that I wasn’t running the show. I let students ask the presenter questions to clarify. I would also ask questions to clarify. Usually we made it through 2-3 students before having a discussion about whether we could all agree on an answer. By this point students were generally in agreement (for good or ill), and I would finally give the answer.

When first starting P.O.D., I knew my students were going to be weak at showing their work and even weaker at writing their reflections. For the first few weeks, I would choose one of the students and I would model the solution and reflection sections based on their work. They would tell me what they did and I would talk about how I would show/write that on my paper. I did this for much longer than a teacher would normally feel comfortable, but I can tell you that it paid off big time. My students’ responses got better and better because they had worked with me to model what it means to write about math thinking. They understood the value of telling what nouns actually go with the quantities they were computing with, for example.

You’d think this would be a boring activity because I forced a structure on them day in and day out, but my kids loved it. Maybe it’s because of the classroom culture I fostered, maybe I had weird kids, or maybe it’s because I wasn’t the voice of authority. Sure, I would give feedback as they worked, but so did other students. Sure, I asked questions during someone’s presentation, but I was always in the back of the room, not in a place of control. Also, I didn’t ask as many questions as my students did. I was “with” them, not “above” them.

While my students learned a lot from doing P.O.D., it was a valuable experience for me as well. I learned that word problems can be much trickier than you’d think. Here are two examples. (I’m making up the wording, but the essence of the problems is the same.)

1. Matt baked 24 cookies. He ate 5 and his sister ate 6. How many cookies did they eat?

I kid you not, every year I’ve presented a problem with similar wording, my students invariably subtract to find the answer. Generally they do 24 – 5 – 6 to get 13. I’m sure you can guess why: Because cookies were eaten, and that just means the amount is going to go down. It just has to.

I LOVE talking about this problem with students during P.O.D.. (This actually isn’t an objective 6 TAKS question. I just snuck it in every year because I knew it would trip them up and lead to great discussion.) Even after talking about the problem with students, and finally getting a few of them to recognize their error in comprehending the question, I still have students after a good 15-20 minute discussion still unclear why the answer is 11. And I’m okay that not all of them get it by the end. Doing P.O.D. is about the process of learning to comprehend, reason through, and solve problems. I can take a loss here and there for the greater victory of developing strong problem solvers over time.

2. Jamal is going to the movies. He buys popcorn for $2.65 and a soda for $3.25. What information is needed to determine how much change Jamal received?

This is another problem that I love because it shows me very clearly that students can read words and completely ignore them. It also shows me that they make a lot of assumptions. Finally, it makes it clear why there is a step in FQSR where you identify the question – because it’s not always what you think it’s going to be! I was floored at how many of my students had temporary blindness when they got to “What information is needed to determine…” Once they got to “…how much change Jamal received?”, all of a sudden their sight returned and they started doing some computations with numbers. If you’re like me, you’re probably wondering how it didn’t occur to them that they had absolutely no idea how much money Jamal handed the cashier, but that did not phase a class of 22 fourth graders one bit. They happily presented me their solutions to the problem. It wasn’t until the class discussion that finally the idea was raised that a student wasn’t actually sure how much money Jamal had. I said that’s an interesting point and decided we should reread the problem together to see if we missed something. As we read “What information is needed to determine…” I stopped and asked my students what those words meant. Finally it dawned on them what they were being asked to do. It was a wonderful a-ha moment for them.

If you’re with me until now, thanks for taking the time to read all of this. While blog posts are encouraged to be on the concise side, I have lots to say, and saying it gets me excited and reinvigorates me.

Sure, in the end I did P.O.D. for test prep, and sure it turned out to be super effective with regards to my students’ scores on the objective 6 questions that year, but it turned out to be about so much more than that. It was about empowering students and helping them become the mathematical thinkers I wanted them to be all along. It gave me practice serving more as a coach and resource rather than as the voice of authority in my classroom, and it taught me a lot about how my students reasoned about solving problems. Now, if only I could have been on a TEAM of teachers that did roughly the same thing I wouldn’t have to be sharing it now as something I’m proud of that made my class distinctly mine.