The SAT Essay: Preparing Students for the Test & Tips for Sealing the Deal

 

National Leave the Office Early Day!As a part of their graduation requirements, every student in Michigan must take the complete SAT, including the essay. This is relatively new for us in the mitten state; previously, our required test was the ACT. As with just about any major change in education, when this first became law, I went through the stages of grief. But now, I’ve moved beyond acceptance and have learned to embrace the newly revised SAT*.

*Ok, “newly revised” requires a bit of perspective. It’s been in place for a couple of years now, but if you haven’t thought much about the SAT since you taught it, it’s changed – a lot.

Now, I’m never going to go bonkers in support of lots of mandatory, standardized testing. But, let’s face it: it’s not going away, so if a test can supply me with reliable data to help inform my instruction, I can deal.

Plus, the SAT is hard, which is one thing that frustrates a lot of people about the shift to this test, but I’d argue that because of its particular type of “hard,” the SAT – especially the essay – is making me improve my teaching.

See, when I say that the SAT is “hard,” part of what I mean is that you can’t really prep for it like you might for other writing tests. That’s because the SAT essay doesn’t just grade kids on how well they can perform with a particular kind of writing. There’s still the kind of icky, unnatural pressure of timed writing, but there’s more to it than that.

A quick look at the rubric will tell you that you’re not dealing with a formulaic response, here. A third of it is devoted to students’ comprehension of the argument they read and another third is devoted to their analysis – their thinking – about the text. That means that a full two thirds of this rubric measures skills that can’t be taught with any kind of formula. And the third that deals with writing? Take a look at the language. It values effectiveness, precision, and variety above structure – all skills for which there simply is no formula.

When we first made the switch to the new SAT essay, my colleagues and I sat down with the rubric and the sample student responses that had been released. We wanted to wrap our heads around this beast to figure out what kids need in order to do well. The discussion was long and at times fraught with emotion, but we were eventually able to agree on a couple of non-negotiables that students would need to be able to succeed on this test. And the really good news is that, to meet these needs, we don’t need to teach to the test or do test-prep; we need to double down on really good instruction. Continue reading

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Low stakes writing: How I reclaimed my sanity and unburied myself from grading.

National Leave the Office Early Day!

My first year teaching AP Language, I was overwhelmed by the grading. The class culminates in a three hour exam; for two of those hours, students are writing three different essays. The amount of prep your average student needs to confidently bang out three essays asking them to do three different things in two hours? A lot.

But, I was new to the class and determined to prepare them well, so I parked myself at my kitchen table every weekend and graded. Essay after essay after essay. By the end of the first semester, all 90 of my students had written at least six process essays (Two of each kind! Gotta show growth!)  Second semester we dove into practicing timed writing so we did two EACH WEEK. There were about 12 weeks in second semester before the test so that means about 24 essays per kid.  Quick math? I easily assessed about 2700 essays that year. That’s insanity.

And it was completely unnecessary.

I know it was unnecessary because I’ve never done it again (my husband threatened divorce!) and my students continue to score better than that first group every single year. Over the years as I’ve shifted to a Writer’s Workshop format, I’ve made more and more moves toward low stakes writing because I’ve realized it’s really the most effective form of test prep.

 

Continue reading

A Test-Prep/Writing Workshop Loop

I acknowledge that learning to really craft writing on demand (rather than brain-dumping on demand) is an important skill for our students to cultivate. They will all engage in some kind of timed, test-like writing situation in their academic lives. And after that, they will still be asked to compose something on-the-spot in job interviews and assessments.

But that doesn’t mean I ever want to give one minute of writing workshop to it.

We know how hard it is to find and make and carve out the time for the things that really matter in our classrooms. We fight for time to let our students write on topics and in genres of their own choosing. Handing that time back over to test prep is incredibly unappealing.

What if every writing study of the year in your workshop could double as on-demand writing test preparation?

Inspired by a session with Mary Ehrenworth and Lucy Calkins at NCTE 16, this is my new routine — one that allows students to practice on-demand writing regularly without compromising the integrity or routines of my writing workshop:

On-DemandFlash Draft

Allow me to explain and show you how this worked itself out in one writing study with my 8th graders this year!

Step One: On-Demand Flash Draft

At the beginning of a writing unit, I give my students a basic definition of the new kind of writing they will do or the technique we will focus on. I give them a few minutes to brainstorm or talk out ideas with their peers, and then I give them the rest of the class period to write.

For instance, upon starting a study of opinion writing, I said, “We are about to begin a new kind of writing which focuses on stating and supporting our opinions. This is the kind of writing you might find on someone’s blog, but more often in a newspaper or website. Typically, people use this kind of writing to share their opinion when they know that others are likely to disagree with them. So backing up your thinking with examples and other support is important. So, today, I want you to spend the rest of this class period writing about an opinion you feeling strongly about and explaining why you feel that way.”

And then they were off!

What? you exclaim. What if they don’t have ideas? What if they aren’t ready? What if they don’t know what they’re doing? 

Exactly.

Continue reading

Planning a Course With a Looming Writing Test

As this post goes live, my Grade 12 students will be finishing their final assessment in their course, a Provincial Assessment. They will have written a process exam for the past four days. Based around a single theme, which they learn on the first day, they were expected to read, respond and write.  The first day, they answered a series of Responding to Text questions dealing with texts that are provided. This is a three hour block. The remaining three days, an hour per day, they worked on a piece of writing that shares their thoughts about the theme. They also have three other questions to answer: about connections to the theme, a reflection on their writing, and explain the connections between their writing variables.

It’s a big test to teach to. I actually quite like many things about our provincial assessment. It does a decent job of giving students a chance to show their ability to meet a number of the outcomes of our curriculum, and doesn’t ask much more of them than I might. (Full disclosure, there are some logistics of the assessment that make me incredibly frustrated, but that’s not what we’re here for.) We echo the format in our other English courses at our school, and knowing that it’s the final assessment for many of our students in English, it has an impact throughout our course planning.

We are firm believers in finding ways to embed “teaching to the test” into our regular teaching. This is important, because an assessment should ask students to do things that they do in the normal course of their class. Most aspects of our assessment are relatively fixed. We know what kind of responses will be asked of students, and we know the structure within which they’ll be writing. These things are considered when we plan.

One of our biggest considerations is teaching thematically. Each of our courses has an overarching theme. There are many reasons for this, but one of them is the provincial assessment. What better preparation for writing about a theme over four days than writing about a theme over four months, four years in a row? We practice making connections within the theme, exploring and explaining our ideas about that theme, learning different genres, forms and strategies as we go. Continue reading

Test Prep for Below-Grade-Level Writers

National Leave the Office Early Day!

If you’ve never proctored an extended-time room for one of the big, high-stakes standardized tests as a high school teacher, I don’t recommend it.  And yet I wish every high school teacher could have that experience at least once.  As a teacher who has invested several years in a co-taught English 11 class, I was lucky enough to get that chance a couple testing seasons ago.  It was perspective changing.

The idea of the modification is that for each section of the test, IEP students with certain accommodations are given double time to complete the work.  It’s logical, but for all but two of the dozen or so students I proctored the test for, it was utterly useless and actually worked only to extend their misery:  For each section of the test, the students gave up and closed their test booklets within 15-20 minutes–less than half the allotted work time for a normal test session, in most cases.  

They had internalized a belief that they weren’t going to be successful on a test like that, so putting in all of that time on it just didn’t make sense for them.   Continue reading

Teaching to the Writing Test – a Moving Writers series

National Leave the Office Early Day!

Although there may be a horde of teachers who have whittled it down to a perfect science, no teacher has ever been excited or invigorated by preparing his or her students for a standardized writing test.

And yet, it’s something that pretty much every one of us must do in one way or another.

Like it or not, our students’ futures will be full of high-stakes “test writing” circumstances — yes, AP and IB tests as they get into junior and senior year, the SAT and ACT, college placement tests, and even job interviews in which they will be asked to compose a piece of writing on-demand in hopes of securing a position.

It’s not fun, but it’s real.

So, we want to spend January letting you into the reality of our classrooms when matters of writing test preparation are at hand:

  • To what extent do we “teach to the test” and to what extent do we let what we still know to be true and best about writing guide our instruction?
  • How do we prepare struggling readers and writers?
  • How do we prepare older students for AP test, IB test, and the SATs?
  • How do we plan a workshop curriculum when standardized tests are looming in the distance?
  • To what degree do we infuse test prep with writing workshop and writing workshop with test prep?

Regardless of the students sitting in your classroom this year, we hope that each installment will give you food for thought and inspiration for making this year’s test prep meaningful beyond test day! We’ll tackle these questions this month as we look ahead to the spring semester with a desire to prepare our students for what lies ahead on the test and in life as writers.