In our state, there are benchmarks, and there are mini-benchmarks. The Benchmarks are given in the fall and winter to evaluate student progress before the state test in April. The “Mini Benchmarks” (or minis) are 5 question assessments that are related to one particular standard.

Having been in 3 districts, I’ve seen the benchmarks implemented almost exactly (schools are required to have this information for reports) but minis are used, or not used, all over the spectrum. At one school, they were used as worksheets to model what the state test would be like. In a different school, they were given by the language arts teacher every two weeks to monitor student progress (and to ensure that the teachers were indeed focusing on the standards that would be tested). At a third school,they were only used by the reading teachers and the data was not readily available to language arts (since not all of the students were required to take a reading class). At my fourth school, teachers are only vaguely familiar with what the minis are, much less how to use them.

At this point I have to say that having been in four schools and three districts is utterly exhausting (I am an expert at both setting up and packing up a classroom). But, at the same time, seeing how schools use various resources differently has been incredibly helpful. How to use mini-benchmarks effectively has been one of those benefits.

Students tend to rush through short assessments like minis, so I needed to find a way to slow them down. In addition to reading the passage and answering the 5 questions (on a bubble sheet), I decided to require them to take out a separate sheet of paper and set it up this way:

Name, period/block and date in the corner
Title of the passage at the top
Summary: (and leaving about 6-7 lines)
1. (Students write their answer and a complete sentence explaining why it is the correct answer)
2.
3.
4.
5. (After each number, leaving about 1-2 lines for room to write)
Connection: (2-3 sentences answering a question relating something about their life to the topic of the passage.)

There are three distinct benefits of having students complete their work in this way. The first is that it slows them down and forces them to look back at the passage for their support. It is gratifying when students tell me that they almost chose one answer, but after looking back in the text to write down support they realized it was a different one. The second benefit is that it allows the students to see their reasoning when we go over the assessment, even if it is a few days later. A third benefit is that it allows me to give credit to students for thinking through the passage and questions regardless of the right answer. (And sometimes, their reasoning for a “wrong answer” makes a lot of sense!) Although it is a separate grade, I am able to make their support papers count more towards their grade than the answers– which, for my struggling readers, helps immensely.

However, when I began using this method with minis about 2 years ago, I got a lot of responses like:
“Because it was in the text”
“I found it in the passage”
“Because it is obvious”
“Because I know it is the answer”

Even telling students ahead of time that these were not acceptable answers didn’t help much.

I found that the one thing that students struggled with most was not necessarily finding the right answer. If they took their time and looked back in the text, they could usually find it. The problem was that even the students with the right answer couldn’t articulate why it was correct. Even if I could get them to write down the paragraph they found the answer in, it didn’t necessarily show they understood the why behind it.

So, this year, I decided to take a proactive approach to modeling the kind of support I wanted even before getting to the first mini. I started with Author’s Purpose since it was evident in an informal survey that my 7th graders rarely ever considered the AP of a text (I don’t yet have access to their fall or winter benchmarks for this type of data, being new). So I started the the typical way: Cornell Notes on Persuade, Inform, Entertain and Explain, complete with examples. Then we did a fun activity with Skittles, which was a hit with the kids.

Then, while students were in groups of four, I gave them a short passage about a book review that had 6 multiple choice questions. I asked them to work together to discuss the answer and write a sentence explaining their answers. Working together helped them, but the answers were less than impressive. One student was frustrated because I was pushing them to really explain and all he could come up with was “it’s obvious.” Unfortunately, the answer he had selected was not correct!

I didn’t give up though. After reviewing with them, I discussed and modeled what good support looked like and had them copy it down. For other texts, I allowed them to write on the paper and highlight important information. For their homework on Author’s Purpose, I had them underline parts of the text and write complete answers, but I realized that they needed more tools to work with. So I returned to the Cornell Notes they had done previously and together we highlighted “buzz words”: words from their notes that they use in their answers. For example, buzz words for Persuade would be “convince” “opinion” and/or “biased.” Once I encouraged students to use at least one or two of the buzz words in their answers, I saw improvement right away!

They were finally ready for a mini-benchmark. I gave them a passage and question sheet that they could write on, and made sure they all wrote complete sentences for support. I was hopeful that all my modeling had paid off, but when I sat down and really looked over their papers, I was blown away at how much progress they had made in just a couple of weeks! Although only about half of my students succeeded in achieving a 3/5 or higher on the assessment, their support showed that they were really looking back and choosing their answers deliberately, rather than randomly selecting answers. For the students who did not do as well, the answers they did select were very close. I am confident that the results I got from the mini are improved over the results from the baseline, as well, as soon as I get a chance to compare them.

So, does all of this work make me a teacher of the test? Well, yes and no. I want them to do well, and so much weighs on their success. They also have a long academic career ahead of them that will no doubt include multiple choice tests and standardized assessment. On the other hand, by having students work to defend their answers ultimately builds their close reading and critical thinking skills, and prepares them for the elaborated paragraphs that they will need to learn as well. I suppose the key is to find a way for the tests to work for you, instead of the other way around.

Below is the product from the student who insisted that an answer (a wrong one) was “obvious” on last week’s assignment. The student is not there yet, but there is definite progress with the strength of the answers!

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