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How to Differentiate for Success on Standardized Tests

This post was originally published on Corwin   Connect


Recently I wrote a guest blog post on differentiation for Peter DeWitt’s blog Finding Common Ground in EdWeek. I corrected five common misconceptions regarding differentiation and offered suggestions for implementation.

The response to the post was in large part quite positive, however, there were a handful of critics. I expected as much, as differentiation is a highly debated concept. I was able to compartmentalize all of the critiques except for one. Many teachers explained that standardized tests prevent them from differentiating because ultimately all of their students take the same test.

This perceived barrier to differentiation is both inaccurate and potentially counterproductive to student learning. In fact, the only way all students will be prepared for standardized tests is by differentiating instruction before the test. If instruction is not differentiated, many students will take state/national tests after months or years of feeling apathetic or discouraged toward learning. Regardless of testing, neither mindset is advantageous for students and contributes to negative self-fulfilling prophecies like, “It doesn’t matter how I do on this test, school will always be boring for me” or “I always do bad on tests, and this will just be another example of that.” Please know, this post is not a promotion of standardized tests. The reality is students are required to take them. There is a time and place to debate the effectiveness, validity, and application of these tests, but for now, I prefer to direct my energy into employing methods that meet the needs of students and promote a love of learning without compromising test scores. So, how can we differentiate the content (what students learn), process (how students learn) and product (how students demonstrate learning) and still expect them to do well on a standardized test? We do this by not focusing on the test, but by focusing on our students’ learning needs instead; achievement is a natural byproduct of differentiating. In Getting Started with Rigorous Curriculum Design and in this short video author Larry Ainsworth explains how a systems approach to planning units of study centered on assessment for learning and appropriate differentiation ultimately prepares students for (summative) standardized tests. Let’s look at an analogous situation: annual physicals and bloodwork. Every July I visit my doctor for a physical. In the twelve months in between blood tests, I do not wake up every morning and think “I am going to eat healthily and exercise today to get a 198 on my cholesterol test.” Rather, I try to eat relatively well and exercise regularly because I know what steps I need to take to reach my goal of being healthy. That being said, one year my cholesterol was elevated. Considering that my husband also sees the same physician and also had high cholesterol, I assumed my doctor would prescribe the same treatment: medication. But, he didn’t. My test results suggested a different intervention would be more appropriate. My doctor simply suggested I change parts of my diet. The result? Three months later my husband and I had our cholesterol levels rechecked and we were both in the normal range. When I think of standardized tests, I think of them like my cholesterol test. I don’t look at the number as my goal—my goal is for students to learn. The number on the test is simply a way for me to check that my students are learning. The tests are one measurement of my effectiveness as a teacher. Truth be told, some years I was more effective than others. During my “less effective” years, I never thought I was a “bad teacher”. I thought I had an opportunity to reflect on my practice and make some changes. Similar to how numbers are not my goal as a teacher, a number on a standardized test is rarely an authentic goal for a student. But, learning goals tied to testing can be hugely impactful for student growth if properly set. A happy medium can be found. I find the following rules of thumb to be quite effective for goal setting with students: Create the context: Have an open and honest conversation with students about the test. I always told my students that the test is just one measure of their success. I even admitted that when I was a student I performed better on other types of assessments. I explained that my goal as a teacher was for them to learn and become critical thinkers and that tests in them of themselves are exercises in critical thinking. I promised them that all the learning activities will prepare them for the test even though we wouldn’t take a whole lot of tests throughout the school year.

Ensure a common understanding of the test: My school district gives the NWEA MAP test. I administered the MAP reading test to my students which gives information on three strand areas: literature, informational text, and vocabulary acquisition. Every year I had many students who either couldn’t remember or couldn’t explain/give an example of literature vs. informational text. Therefore, students and I met one-one to ensure a common understanding of what exactly would be assessed (standardized tests or otherwise). Without a comprehensible understanding of these terms goal setting would have been done in vain.

Collaborate on goal setting: The most attainable goals are goals that are feasible, measurable, and sustainable. By measurable, I am referring to a way for the student to determine if they are meeting the goal, not a number on a test. Every year my students would amaze me by setting super creative goals. For instance, one student set a vocabulary acquisition goal for herself. This student was going to “acquire vocabulary” by keeping a dictionary in her bathroom. Every morning when she brushed her teeth she taught herself one new word. Then, she used this new word in class later that day (orally or in written form). This student never missed one day. Furthermore, when I planned instruction, I had information to better tailor group work to offer and monitor opportunities for this student to grow in her goal area as well as the other skills/standards assessed.

Discuss this process with your team or PLC. I had the luxury of having students in their reading class. However, standardized test scores are an accumulation of learning in ALL classes, not just reading, writing and math. All teachers who teach students should know students’ goals and plan to reach their goals so they can plan instruction accordingly.

As differentiation expert Rick Wormeli said, “Differentiated instruction and standardized tests are not oxymoronic… Students will do well on standardized assessments if they know the material well, and differentiated instruction’s bottom line is to teach in whatever way students best learn.”

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