After watching my entire class of 6th-grade students average over 90% month after month on our reading program’s unit skill tests, I began to get a sneaky suspicion that some of them already knew the material prior to my instruction!
This realization led to my use of the program’s unit tests as a pre-assessment.
Want an article about how I did this in math?
See It In Action
The best way to get a handle on what this looks like is to close your computer and walk to a classroom that already has a differentiated practice in place. No one at your school runs multiple groups? Ask your administrator to let you visit another school and watch it? They won’t let you? Take a darn sick day then! Seriously, this is essential. Watching an experienced teacher in action will answer way more questions than reading about it will.
Onto my own experience.
About The Actual Tests
We used Houghton Mifflin’s language arts programs. These multiple-choice theme skill tests happened approximately every month. There were sometimes ten sections or so of multiple-choice questions, divided into spelling, grammar, reading comprehension, etc.
I thought these tests (and the lessons that went with them) were mostly a waste of time but were district-required, so using them as pre-assessments gave me an “official” way to skip the baloney and teach more interesting things. If kids can ace it before the lessons, why teach the lessons, right?
Will this annoy/anger/bother your administrator? Maybe. But if you’re not routinely getting in a little trouble for the sake of protecting your students, then… maybe start?
Briefing Them In Advance
If you’ve never done any kind of pre-assessment with your students, make sure you let them know up-front how it works. I’d be sure to emphasize:
- These tests only go in my grade-book if they’re 4s (or As or whatever your top-grade is).
- This means that no one gets a “bad grade” recorded (or reported to their parents!).
- If they want to purposefully get them all wrong because they love my lessons, then that’s fine.
- BUT be sure to advertise the advantages of “testing out” of a skill: you’ll be working on something else that’s probably more interesting, you won’t have to do the associated homework, and you won’t have to take this part of test ever again.
Read more about the essential technique of pre-assessing here.
Briefing YOU, Reader, In Advance
Ok, listen, this is going to seem complicated and it won’t line up perfectly with your own situation and you’ll probably have 1,000 clarifying questions. I cannot help you. The best thing you can do is just try something. It will stink at first. It’ll be a mess. But you’ll figure things out and get better at doing this. A 20% solution is better than a 0% solution.
Perfect is the enemy of good enough. Just try.
And don’t be afraid to tell your students, “Hey, I’m trying something new because I think it’ll be better for you all. It’s going to be confusing at first. Sorry. I’ll get better and you’ll get better.” Having the guts to “get meta” with your class is essential when you’re trying something new with them. They’ll probably really like that you’re experimenting.
- Day one: Before any instruction, all students took the reading comprehension skill tests. There would be four of the these sections.
- Day two: Students take any remaining sections that I deem appropriate for a pre-assessment. This can include structural analysis, word parts, and grammar. Note: this is all specific to our particular reading program, but you’ll have something similar I bet.
- I correct these tests. Students never see their test again, nor which they got right/wrong. (Many will be taking this same test as a post-assessment in about a month). Students only know if they passed or didn’t pass. If they passed, they are “compacted” out of that lesson.
- Know your criteria for “passing”: It shouldn’t be 100%. 85% or 90% is a typical cutoff point. Remember these kids haven’t even been taught the material and they’re getting these scores. I’d even note students who are above 75% already as probably needing adapted instruction.
- When we get to each lesson, students who have passed the pre-assessment get an up-leveled assignment while the rest of the class receives the typical lesson.
- During the post-assessment, any student who compacted out of a section does not have to retest that section, they get a top-score in the grade book. Do Not Make Kids Re-Take A Test Just Because They Missed One!
- You will avoid teaching students material they already know.
- Students who have not mastered the material will receive instruction in a smaller group.
- Students who have demonstrated mastery get an up-leveled, differentiated assignment and the chance to work on their own.
- Groups are flexible, so students are constantly changing groups based on need.
- You have clear evidence to show that students demonstrated mastery (≥90%).
The Grim Details
The most difficult part of this system (for me) was the administrative details of tracking each student’s level at each skill and communicating these levels to students. In order for this system to work, students need to quickly check if they are in a “compact group” or an “on-level group” for any particular skill.
Here is a typical scenario:
- Me: “Today we are going to be working on punctuating quotations. If you are in the compact group for this skill, come up and I will give you your assignment. Everyone else, come up to the front with your language arts notebook.”
- Student X: “Am I in the compact group?”
- Me: “Let me read off the people who are in the compact group:” (I read a dozen names.)
- Student Y: “Wait, am I in the compact group?”
- Me: “Argh.” (more hair falls out)
So, reading a bunch of names out before each lesson was impractical. My next try was to add a list on the language arts board in the back of the room, but this led to a stampede every time I started a lesson.
Post-Its To The Rescue
In the end, each student maintained a post-it on their desk keeping track of their own status for each skill. I would, of course, maintain my own spreadsheet since certain students will lose their post-its occasionally (or frequently or always).
Also, to maintain privacy, students choose to have their post-it face-up or face-down on their desks.
To add a little drama, we held a “results show” the day after the pre-tests to announce who had compacted out. It was during this time that students recorded their post-its.
Will you have a kid who breaks down in tears because they didn’t pass every section of the pre-test? Yes. This is good because now we know we have a problem. You (and the parents and the kid) need to deal with this social-emotional need before the end of the year. Now you know about it.
To create a learning goal for the compact group, add an extra layer of depth or complexity to the original objective. Here’s an example:
- On-Level Group Student Objective — “Students will prove the generalization ’causes lead to unexpected effects’ using the selection ‘The Great Wall’ by creating a multi-flow map with at least three causes and three effects.”
- Compact Group Student Objective — “Students will prove the generalization ’causes lead to unexpected effects’ across the disciplines of science, social studies, language arts, and their own life. They will create a big idea organizer with at least two examples for each discipline.”
The challenge is to keep the assignment interesting but also familiar enough so that the compact group can work without needing lots of assistance (since you are teaching the on-level group). In this example, my students were already familiar with generalizations and big idea organizers.
Note: this problem of creating and running up-leveled tasks for small groups is why I created Byrdseed.TV. Check it out.
This may seem like running a three-ring circus, but by the end of the year, my students were quite efficient at moving to their necessary groups. I loved it because it conquered the problem of providing flexible language arts groups for my students. It was also quite efficient since I used publisher-provided, district-approved, multiple-choice tests. Finally, it helped me target my instruction towards specific students and specific skills.
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