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.”

Instructional Coaching: Finally, an Easy Choice

This post was originally published in @PeterMDeWitt‘s blog Finding Common Ground in Education Week.


Want more posts like this? Please read: The Pendulum is not Swinging Back, The Next Great Tool for Teachers: Instructional Coaches, and  Thank you for making me cry. Also, be sure to check out the infographics page for other applicable resources.

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Last I Checked, Compliance Isn’t a Learning Standard

compliance or learning final (1)

This post was originally published in @PeterMDeWitt‘s blog Finding Common Ground in Education Week.

Today’s guest post is written by Lisa Westman. Lisa is an instructional coach specializing in differentiation for Skokie School District 73.5 in suburban Chicago. She taught middle school gifted humanities, ELA, and SS for twelve years before becoming a coach.

“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” Maya Angelou

For five years I took the same route to work. I was comforted by the familiar surroundings. I could listen to music, drink my coffee, and be alone with my thoughts. I never considered whether or not this route was the most efficient way for me to get to work. Then, one day there was an accident on the highway. I needed to find an alternate route. I entered my destination into Waze (I love this app!) and immediately learned there was a much quicker way, one that would save me time regardless of a back-up on the highway.

As I usually do, I connected this personal experience to my professional life. When I was in the classroom, how many practices had I utilized out of habit without evaluating their effectiveness? The answer was simple- too many.  I required my students to keep reading logs even though the logs did not provide insight into my students’ reading development or interests. I gave all students summative vocabulary tests every ten days regardless of their readiness. I assigned final products with mandatory components without student input. This reflection led me to make the larger realization that many of the tasks I required students to complete were exercises in compliance rather than learning.

This summer, for the third time, I read Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning by John Hattie. In his book, Hattie shares the results of a meta-analysis of 15+ years of research involving thousands of students to provide evidence as to what really works to improve learning. Hattie writes:

“The aim is to get the students actively involved in seeking this evidence: their role is not simply to do tasks as decided by teachers, but to actively manage and understand their learning gains. This includes evaluating their own progress, being more responsible for their learning, and being involved with peers in learning together about gains in learning….fostering active learning seems a very challenging and demanding task for teachers, requiring knowledge of students’ learning processes, skills in providing guidance and feedback and classroom management. The need is to engage students in this same challenging and demanding task….start lessons with helping students to understand the intention of the lesson and showing them what success might look like at the end.”

Hattie stresses that teachers and students must have a clear and shared understanding of both the learning intentions and success criteria. Students need to know what to do to be successful, and they need to see examples of what success looks like. In Visible Learning, Hattie uses a driving analogy to illustrate the importance of success criteria:

“Imagine if I were simply to ask to get in your car and drive; at some unspecified time, I will let you know when you have successfully arrived (if you arrive at all). For too many students, this is what learning feels like.”

With this perspective, let’s re-evaluate having students complete reading logs. I asked my students to keep reading logs to “ensure” they were reading independently. My learning intention was to foster my students’ love of reading while simultaneously strengthening their reading skills. I didn’t ask myself what success would look like for this task and therefore required students to complete an assignment that was misaligned to the learning intentions. With reading logs, students succeeded by reading an arbitrary number of pages each quarter. This task certainly did not foster a love of reading for my students, and moreover, the logs didn’t provide any insight into the progression of their reading skills.

Now, with the availability of research like Hattie’s, we can better determine the effectiveness of the practices we employ in our schools and classrooms.  We need to dig deep and ask ourselves the right questions. We need to be prepared for the realizations we make when we look critically at ourselves. Inevitably, we will recognize some of our practices promote learning and others do not. What we may find is we can group practices into two overarching categories: those that cultivate learning and those that promote compliance. Items rooted in compliance hold students accountable regardless of learning. Those created using research-based high impact methods encourage academic and social-emotional learning, growth, and success.

In addition to applying educational research, we must also leverage the power of personal reflection and collaboration to determine the effectiveness of our teaching practices.

I find self-reflection followed by collaboration with a colleague to be the most powerful way to make sustainable changes to the way I teach. To guide my reflection I ask myself the following questions:

  • Why am I asking students to complete this task?
  • How does this task provide information about students’ progress toward the success criteria?
  • Does this task promote collaboration (student-student and student-teacher)?
  • Does this task promote student ownership?
  • Does this task take student readiness into consideration?
  • Does this task promote a positive rather than punitive learning community?
  • How will I know this task is effective?
  • What will happen if I stop having students perform this task?

After I answer these questions honestly, I take a deep breath and consider the changes I need to make. I remind myself that change is a difficult but necessary part of life. I also tell myself that making a change does not mean that what I did in the past was “bad.” Rather, making a change means I have received new information that is too valuable for me to ignore.

When I am ready, I share my reflections with a trusted colleague. I collaborate with this person to determine a plan to guide the change I seek to make. I attempt to adhere to my plan even when there are bumps in the road. I try to look at setbacks as opportunities to improve further rather than reasons to stop. Most importantly, I strive to keep my eyes on my success criteria: the growth and success of students.

Questions about this post? Connect with Lisa on Twitter @lisa_westman