Monday, August 18, 2008

Standardized Tests 2008 Pt. 2

Teaching to do well on a standardized tests requires a different approach from teaching simply to pass a test designed, given, and monitored by the teacher.

The main difference is that correctly answering the questions on a standardized test need not always require knowing how to answer the questions algebraically. The same tricks and strategies useful on the SAT and ACT is directly applicable to any standardized exam. Any reputable SAT book will provide a list of practical strategies to use during the test. This can help the student answer questions that he/she could not have answered without the strategies, which in turn can help boost the students score.

Another helpful technique is to compile a bank of practice exams, Kaplan provides a series of practice exit exams, so does Barron's and Princeton Review. Since the exit exams are specific to one state the number and variety of practice exams are smaller in number when compared to the SAT or the ACT. So in this case we have to improvise and utilize the exit exams from other states, the standards from state to state are similar enough that their practice exams can be helpful. Once again Kaplan, Barron's, and Princeton Review provide the practice exams for other states as well, in my case I considered using the practice exams from Massacheusetts and New York. In addition the New York Regents exam is also of great use.

Another good suggestion is for the teacher to take the practice exam him or herself under timed conditions. In this manner the teacher can determine which questions might be more difficult than others. Also, the teacher can develop multiple ways to answer the same question-this is one of the most effective techniques for standardized tests. I usually encourage my students to answer the question in more than one way, the most obvious way is using algebra though it is not always the most efficient way. So I encourage the students to develop alternate ways to answer the question; trial and error, eliminate obviously wrong answers and guess, measure with a piece of scratchpaper, test the answers. You can also combine multiple strategies, algebra + trial and error, trial and error+test answers, measure+test answers, etc. The more ways your students can answer a question the higher the chances they can correctly answer a question on the test when the algebra is too difficult. Sometimes I tell my students that they can answer the question using any method they want, except algebra! This really gets them to think.

Sometimes you may want to challenge the students in different ways to see if they can adapt, so sometimes I give them a test at a level higher than would be expected. Sometimes I give them a test with different types of questions, for example comparisons or arithmetic type questions etc.

One should avoid simply teaching the material without teaching the strategies mentioned above. Covering only the material does help improve the student's score but a much slower rate. One should avoid simply reading from a textbook, the best advice is to teach but verify, meaning teach a concept, then give the students a couple of examples to do and go student by student to determine if each student understands. Another techinque is to use progressive understanding; every mathematics problem can be broken down into a series of simple steps. For example suppose a student cannot solve the following problem:

Solve for x: 3x+9 = 18

So you say ok, can you solve this problem: x + 9 = 18, most of the time students can solve it, x = 18-9, so x = 9. If the student can't solve it, usually it is very easy to explain how.

Ok so then you ask, can you solve this problem: 3x = 27, most of the time students can solve it, x = 27/3 = 9. Once again usually it is very easy to explain.

Then you return to the original problem: 3x+9 = 18, then give them a little hint start with the 9 just like you did before in the easier example, worry about the 3x later. So they start 3x = 18-9 so 3x = 9. This looks very similar to the problem before, why not try the same technique, usually the student understands at this point. At this point I usually give the student several of these problems to make sure they understand how to solve it, then I have them explain the solution process to me in detail.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Standardized Tests, Its That Time of Year Again

Around this time of year the results of the last year's standardized tests are released. Often there is much hand-wringing, due to the poor or fair test results of certain ethnic groups. This year has shown improvement in the test results, though gaps are still persistent. This is expected, since test results usually depend upon the mastery of previous material, any gaps in mastery of knowlege from the previous years tends to continue in the future years.

A while back I decided to test my ideas in actual practice, to determine if they are effective under the most difficult of circumstances. I was given that opportunity at a local school in one of the most challenging cities. By luck I was assigned to teach a class for young adults that were unable to pass the high school exit exam on multiple attempts and in some cases they had taken class multiple times, quite a challenge.

I was given 6 students all of whom failed the high school exit exam, specifically the mathematics portion. I was given an analysis of the each student's score separated into different parts according the different portions of the test. So I began to the review the section where most of the students had trouble. As time went one I continuously modified my approach until I found one that worked. I found the following 4 rules to be the most effective approach.

1. Enforce attendance:
If the students are not there you can't help them improve.

2. Make them study in class:
Many of the students are in the class because they never developed the study skills to ensure a passing score on the high school exit exam. Often I assigned homework and reading assignments which they hardly ever completed, so I made them study in class. I determined that many students have to work to help support their families so they don't have much time to study after class, many also lack the discipline to study consistently. As I have said before, by study I don't mean simply starting at a book, or looking at notes, I make studying interactive.

One time I made them memorize 20 geometrical forumulas in class, then I tested them in class. Then I made them memorize the solutions to a complex mathematics problems, then I tested them in class, by asking each student individually to solve the problem on the board as I peppered them with question after question after question. I found that before you can try this you first have to earn the trust of the students. They have to know that you care about their education and that everything you do is for their improvement.

3. Test them everyday: To ensure they pass the test by the end of the class, it is best they get as much experience with the test situation by simulating test conditions as accurately as you can. All you need is a scantron machine, scantron paper, some #2 pencils, and of course practice exams. (Most schools have a scantron machine) Ensure that they improve their score everyday or at least every week, sometimes I give the same test over to determine if they at least memorized the material.

4. Always keep them busy: If they finish with studying or with a test, make sure you have either another test or more material they should study prepared.

There is much room for indpendent initiative to be creative.

John Gonzalez