Heather Wolpert-Gawron

7 Steps to Help Students Succeed on Assessments

By on October 9, 2016

This year, I was given a class of LTELs (long-term English Language Learners) and recently exited SPED students with the goal of focusing my lesson implementation on engagement and more social-emotional learning. So we’re leading up to our first grade-level assessment.  It’s a doozy, a beast in what it asks of our students and their literacy levels. And as a goal-setting activity prior to the test, I asked why many of them have struggled on assessments in the past. My thought was by identifying what plagued them going into the test, perhaps they could combat those demons when taking it.

The answers showed real reflection and a deep understanding of themselves. Nevertheless, it also shows how little the students understand how to counteract the habits that contribute to their own failure. That’s where we, the teachers, come in.

Check out some of their answers. Some of what they mention they just clearly need to get into the habit of doing (“reading directions,” echem!), but others require us to help  students learn strategies to fight off the now-habitualized behavior.

Here are just some of their telling responses:

“I get distracted to the littlest things.”

“When I see huge questions that come with reading I give up.”

“When the reading is too much, I would skim through it not really reading it”

“Sometimes I don’t have faith in myself than I should”

“I’m not interested in it. When I’m interested in something or have experience in it, I would want to do it and do better.

“I like to skip to the easy parts and then I never get to finish the hard parts.”

“I sometimes don’t read the directions and finish fast.”

“I start thinking about other things and don’t concentrate.”

“I was never good at writing essays.”

“When there’s too much writing I shut down”

“When people finish I feel like I’m the last one and put whatever I think and write it fast.”

“before I start the test, I always think negative thoughts.”

“I tend to skip directions.”

“I am always tired and misread stuff.”

“I get distracted when I sit next to people that I get along with.”

“If I see a lot of reading I give up.”

“I skip questions that are long and guess.”

“I always think that I will fail.”

“when there is a whole page of reading and no color.”

“misunderstood words”

“take awhile to start my engine/start my writing”

“day dreaming/zone out”

“I shut down when the going gets tuff”

“I sometimes skip big reads”

“I can lose my focus and get distracted.”

“My brain always freezes up and forgets what I learned when I have tests.”

“I see a huge page that I have to read”

“I skip directions”

“I feel tired”

“my mind is somewhere else”

“when stuff is too hard”

“I gave up too easily”

“I didn’t ask for help”

“When I would run out of thoughts, I always type or write something different to fill in the space.”

“Don’t know what some of the words mean.”

“I have a habit of shutting down on hard things fail challenges while being impacient.”

“I skip the reading and guess.”

“When I do the test, I shut down – like I can’t think”

“I get scared and not know what to do.”

“Sometimes that requires a lot of reading that ends up shutting me down.”

“I sometimes read the questions incorrectly.”

“I have negative thoughts like I feel like I can’t do good…”

“Things that shut me down are usually when there are a lot of text in a test question.”

7 Steps to Help Students Succeed on Assessments

So I categorized these answers to create a short list of seven categories that help with my own strategizing. But they come with the full knowledge that the student must also work to change their habits if failure is to be avoided.

  1. HELP LIMIT DISTRACTIONS – As we move deeper and deeper into a 1:1 world, this takes thinking about. For instance, I’m learning to make YouTube playlists rather than simply send out a link to a video. I’m using more tools that help block ads. All of these lead to over-stimulation online.
  1. HELP THEM DEVELOP A MORE POSITIVE VOICE – When we are already convinced we’ll fail, we will. Help students learn that intelligence is flexible. Give them honest praise as they informally show you successes. Success doesn’t need to be measured by assessments alone.
  1. HELP MAKE THE MATERIAL MORE ENGAGING – We need to put more effort into making our lessons more engaging and meaningful. That doesn’t mean fun; it means making our lessons something they want to learn.
  1. HELP THEM TAKE OWNERSHIP OF WHAT THEY HAVE TO DO THEMSELVES – Give them the list of what they are responsible to do. This “I don’t read the directions” thing is a chronic problem, but we can’t do it for them. They also need to be their own advocate, to ask questions, and insist on clarification. They must learn to raise their hand. They also need to get to sleep at a reasonable time! Hint: some students aren’t mature enough to do this themselves; you have to enlist parent support.
  1. TEACH THEM ACADEMIC VOCABULARY – Teach them the language of the tests. It’s a specific genre and requires targeted lessons and reinforcement. Use these words in class regularly and praise students for using them as well.
  1. SCORE BASED ON CONTENT KNOWLEDGE – Find ways to assess students in different ways. A student who struggles with writing can justify their mathematical equation orally or via Screencastify. A student who shuts down in front of the class might need to pre-record their response or produce a mini-project or written response instead.  Unless they are being assessed on writing itself, find other ways to assess how they communicate your content.
  1. TO GET MORE QUALITY, LIMIT THE QUANTITY OF TEXT ON AN ASSESSMENT – On our assessments, really determine what’s necessary and what’s redundant. Analyze if every excerpt and every question is really necessary to assess for content knowledge. We aren’t in the business of punishing a struggling student by giving them an excruciating assessment. It makes them hate reading and makes it harder for you to assess what they really know.

Iend this with a note to self and a call to action: let’s start, as a profession, to think about ways we might be able to become a more positive voice in their heads. We need to be the hopeful and persistent whisper that balances out their internal negative scream.















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