Instruction and Nothing More?
testing experts have been vocal in their opposition to excessive test
preparation. Douglas Reeves, chairman and founder of the Center for Performance
Assessment and the International Center for Educational Accountability, has
said that “even if the state test is dominated by lower-level thinking
skills and questions are posed in a multiple-choice format, the best
preparation for such tests is not mindless testing drills, but extensive
student writing, accompanied by thinking, analysis, and reasoning” 1, p.
92. Very few people, however, advocate sitting students down in front of
standardized tests with no practice in test-taking skills and strategies. The
Chicago Public Schools Intranet page is typical of the advice given by many
states. It begins with the slogan “Good instruction is the best test
preparation” 2, but goes on to recommend two
district-developed guides for preparing students to take standardized tests.
Coltrane of the Center for Applied Linguistics advocates teaching ELLs the
discourse of tests and test-taking skills: “It is. .. beneficial to raise
ELLs’ awareness of the typical discourse and formats of standardized tests.
ELLs may not be familiar with the kind of language that is used in tests,
including many predictable patterns and phrases. It may also be beneficial to
teach test-taking skills (e.g., how to approach a multiple-choice question, how
to locate the main idea of a reading passage) to help prepare ELLs for specific
types of test items they may encounter. Armed with a variety of test-taking
skills and strategies, ELLs may be empowered to demonstrate their knowledge on
a test, rather than being intimidated by unfamiliar terms and formats” 3.This
preparation in how to approach test questions and answer sheets is especially
important for ELLs who are recent immigrants. Even those who have some
proficiency in English may never have been exposed to the format of U.S.
standardized testing. Like Alexis, they may know a lot of the information that
is tested and know enough English to understand the questions, but be too
intimidated by the format to even try to answer.
is much more controversy about the extensive use of test preparation materials
that drill students in the specific knowledge and skills of a particular test.
Many schools are looking to commercial test preparation materials to help them
improve test scores and thus reduce the possibility of being labeled “in
need of improvement” under the No Child Left Behind regulations.
More and more publishers are producing state-specific practice materials and
practice tests. Obviously, test preparation materials of this type can be
beneficial under some circumstances. For many years, students preparing to take
SAT or GRE tests have been able to increase their scores with test preparation
courses or books. In most cases, however, those who benefit are students who
already have good academic backgrounds. For these students, test preparation is
a supplement to academic preparation, not a substitute for it. For the many
ELLs who lack good academic preparation in both their native language and in
English, this kind of test preparation alone will not help them achieve better
danger of overreliance on this kind of test preparation material is that it can
come to dominate the curriculum. This concern was expressed by a group of
advocates for parental choice in testing: “Will our school districts turn
into massive test preparation centers where real learning is available only for
those who will clearly have no trouble passing any portion of the test, and
everyone else spends their time on remediation and test preparation?”
4 Many ELLs have large gaps in the civic knowledge needed to be good
citizens in a democracy and in the scientific knowledge needed to do well in a
technological society. Teaching the skills required for the reading/language
arts and mathematics tests should not be at the expense of instruction in
social studies and science.
view is advanced by Lily Wong Fillmore, a well-known expert on teaching ELLs. After
criticizing “teaching to the tests” and the overemphasis on the
skills included on the tests to the exclusion of other subjects and skills, she
states, “What kids need. .. is the kind of English language skills that
give them a fighting chance in the high stakes tests that they will be taking
in school” 5. This kind of academic English is developed
through constant attention to the ways in which language is used in academic
who incorporate this explicit focus on language into their instruction extend
students’ vocabulary by “playing with words” whenever the opportunity
arises through activities such as creating word families, playing
synonym/antonym guessing games, commenting on multiple meanings, and helping
students make connections to their own native languagesThey build students’
understanding of text by explaining how structures such as passive sentences,
embedded clauses, or relationships among verb tenses create specific meanings.
They deepen students’ comprehension of how language works by pointing out the
vocabulary and structures that signal relationships such as cause and effect,
comparison and contrast, or generalization and examples.
there a way that we could combine these approaches to test preparation for ELLs
and come up with something that would really make a difference? What would
happen if we provided ELLs with a solid academic foundation, including an
explicit focus on understanding how academic language works, plus a reasonable
amount of instruction in test-taking skills and the discourse of tests? It
sounds logical, but it would not be easy.
can’t forget that testing is not done for its own sake; it’s a part of
standards-based instruction. And standards-based instruction only works when
teachers know what the standards are, know where all students are in relation
to the standards, and have the teaching skills necessary to bring those
students who are behind up to the required level. When some of the students are
ELLs, special teaching skills are required, skills that many teachers don’t
have. So one of the keys to improving ELLs’ test scores is professional
development in effective strategies for teaching ELLs.
even with this kind of professional development, many teachers who work with
ELLs do not have sufficient understanding of language to be able to provide the
explicit focus on academic language that is needed 6. Both
pre-service teacher education and in-service professional development must
provide much more basic information about language if teachers are to be
effective in developing the academic language that ELLs need in order to
succeed on standardized tests.