Preparing students for open response test questions

February 27th, 2013

Though the Common Core assessments are still being developed, it’s clear that they will involve various kinds of “constructed response” questions beyond traditional multiple-choice items. Students will need to know how to read a series of excerpts, gather evidence from each piece, and formulate a coherent response. We asked Ardie Cole, author of Better Answers: Written Performance That Looks Good and Sounds Smart (2nd ed.), for her advice on preparing students for the upcoming tests.

As a teacher and a literacy coach, I lived through New York State’s early implementation of open-response tests—as well as the results. When the assessment’s results arrived, I was asked, as a member of the correction committee, to “fix the writing problem.” Fortunately, our state returned copies of the actual tests that I could closely analyze. I was surprised to discover it was actually students’ creativity that could ruin a response! That aha moment occurred while I was reading hundreds of test responses. In class, students were being encouraged to imagine and visualize and to make their writing creative. But this test writing demanded more structure and specificity.

Students needed experience in another, more structured genre that demands factual evidence from acceptable sources. So we implemented what did work. And when all was said and done, I sat down and wrote a book called Better Answers.

“The ‘Answer Sandwich’?” a math teacher asked me. “What the heck is that? Sounds like something I wouldn’t buy.”

I explained, “If you teach math, science, social studies, or technology and are starting to use assessments that have written responses—not just multiple-choice items—I bet you’ll be using the Better Answer Sandwich or something like it someday soon. And when you do, its protocol can be a lifesaver—and a time-saver! Plus I wager that you, yourself, will borrow it the next time you respond to an administrative memo, or when you return an item to a manufacturer, or when you write a letter to the editor in defense of some idea. In other words, it’s not only a school tool—it’s a real-world tool.”

It is the teachers of subjects like science, math, and social studies who quickly understand and then implement this sandwich structure into their lessons and assessments. Now, more English teachers are embracing the approach as well, in response to the emphasis the Common Core Language Arts Standards place on nonfiction reading and writing, argument, and use of evidence.

There’s a little more to that sandwich, though, than a couple of buns and the facts that are layered between them. For some, the Better Answer Sandwich, itself, may be enough—or at least an entrée (see visual). However, students taking the new Common Core assessments would definitely benefit from an expanded perspective, because they’d learn to analyze prompts before starting to write and they’d experience evaluating their completed responses. All of this is explained in Better Answers. Plus, the book’s CD provides lessons with digital PowerPoint slides, resources, real-world venues, and other goodies.

Across the country, students will have more constructed-response items on all tests they are taking in our schools. Research supports their inclusion. Still, school tests are but one reason to use this sandwich structure. Another reason to keep it up and running is because it’s even more valuable in the real world. Anytime—in school or out—when asked to explain, analyze, compare, or describe, why not let the Better Answer Sandwich be your guide—a GPS that leads writers down the right-answer road?

Entry Filed under: Assessment

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