10 Questions for Jeff: The pressure of high-stakes tests

December 20th, 2012

Question 9: In my state, high school students must pass a high-stakes writing test in order to graduate.  I teach students with learning disabilities – and many speak English as a second language. Although many of my students pass, it’s heartbreaking to see so many others struggle. One former student failed the test so many times that she asked if there was such a thing as a “brain transplant.” She looked at me dejectedly and said, “I think I need a new one.”

It can feel overwhelming, trying to get high school students who read and write at an elementary school level to pass a high school level test. I know we shouldn’t have to “teach to the test” – but when you’re pressed for time, it feels like there’s no other option. What do you recommend for teachers of high-stakes writing tests? Which of your books I should focus on to give students maximum improvement in the shortest amount of time?


Jeff’s response: I think we all feel the pressures of high-stakes testing—both teachers and students. The students you ask about—ELLs and students with learning disabilities—often suffer more under high-stakes testing’s reign.  Whether we teach high school or elementary, it’s important that we hold fast to best practices in writing instruction. It is helpful for a teacher to understand what is tested and how, though this does not require us to “teach to the test” to help our students succeed. Out of fear, some teach to the test and ignore best instructional practice. Information on best practices can be found in the Writing Next report.

In addition, as a high school teacher, you may also be interested in what Judith Langer and colleagues found on how to get the best test scores. Surprise! Best practice. And the report shows how “test prep” often has a negative effect on scores.

My experiences working with the populations described do benefit from best practice.. If you are looking for ways to use models to teach writing in general—narrative, explanatory/informational, or argument—see 10 Things Every Writer Needs to Know.  If you are looking for ways to improve grammar and editing skills, see Mechanically Inclined or Everyday Editing.

I do think there are many things we can do. Writing fluency is a huge concern. How much time are students spending doing the things writers do? That’s how they’ll become better writers. As teachers, we orchestrate an environment where writing behaviors happen. The amount of time students spend collecting, drafting, conferring, revising, editing, and publishing—writing—will directly correlate with how well they are able to do it.

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Entry Filed under: Writing

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