Old English teacher joke: What do you call a moron on oxygen? That’s right. An oxymoron. Bad as that is, I’m using it as my lead into the term “Fun MCAS Unit.” If you’re living in another state, country, or universe, you can replace MCAS with a high-stakes, standardized acronym near you, but you still get the picture. If the title is “Fun MCAS Unit” then the subtitle must be “The Impossible Dream” or “Signed, The Miracle Worker.”
Our annual MCAS unit looks at test-taking as a genre. Thus, it is short and sweet — two weeks, maybe three if the schedule is potholed with field trips, assemblies, and snow days. You just want to make the process transparent and help students not only with this test but with all the others that might dot the landscape of their futures: PSAT, SAT, LSAT, ACT, GMAT, etc. The expression “beating a dead horse” comes from schools that do standardized test practice all year long, or maybe once a week all year until tests bloom in the spring. That’s a crime against humanity (featuring your students in Academy Award-winning performances as “humanity”).
So, yes. Just a little bit of this “fun,” thank you, and trust on all your other good work throughout the year. You may not come out in the top ten for the entire state like some of the smaller charter schools who can pick and choose their students (a slight advantage), but you’ll do all right. Deep breath, then. And murmur your mantra.
The worst thing you can do during an MCAS unit is download old versions of the test and just have your students practice, practice, practice day after day after endless day. Some practice is necessary, of course, but avoid the same routine. Pretend you’re being followed, maybe. Take a different route each time out. Otherwise, come test day in March, your students will be mere shells of their former beings, smoke drifting from their ears in tortured tendrils, eyes staring blankly at the bubble sheet.
Mix it up. If students take a practice test on their own on Monday, have them take it in groups on Tuesday. If students read silently at their seats on Wednesday, read the piece aloud as they follow along on Thursday.
When students answer multiple-choice questions as a group, good things happen. For instance, if you invoked the name of POE (process of elimination, not Edgar Allan) and taught them the three types of answers: correct, distractor, and throwaways, let them record not only the correct answers but the distractors as well. And if you taught them the difference between on-the-line questions (which you can put your finger on or paraphrase) and between-the-lines questions (which you must infer), have them record that, too.
With a four-column matrix in front of them (Question Number|Answer|OTL or BTL|Distractor), they will sometimes have heated discussions before agreeing on their answers. This is good heat. I love it, for instance, when I overhear one student saying, “That can’t be right, because it says here…,” and another student saying, “This is definitely the distractor, because it’s actually true but not for the entire section. It’s only true for one paragraph in the section, and the question specifically states, ‘In the section…’.”
That’s fun, isn’t it? (OK. Only for the eavesdropping teacher. No self-respecting student will ever admit MCAS work is fun. Ever.)
Sometimes on old tests you’ll find speeches or excerpts from speeches. If you don’t find one in your state’s standardized tests, look in other states’ archives. They’re there for the browsing. Then you need only search on-line for a video version of the speech. Lights. Camera. Showtime!
The same trick works when standardized tests use excerpts from plays. If you can find relevant scenes from the play on youtube or other sources, show it to students first, then have them read it. Or, in the spirit of changing it up, show it first, read it second, and discuss how the two differ before answering the questions. The Common Core writers (big on comparing different forms of media) will love it if you do.
What about poems? Many recordings of poets or actors reading famous poems can be found on the Internet — yes, even poems that get lost and wind up in standardized test booklets (talk about taking a wrong turn!).
Sometimes the use of media for MCAS practice adds a human touch to matters. Sometimes it leads your English class into the realms of history or art or music, all breaths of fresh air when your room gets stuffy from standardized test work. In 2008, the Grade 8 MCAS featured President Ronald Reagan’s speech about the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion. Ever since, as part of our unit, we devote a class to this piece, but we gussy it up a bit, grabbing the students’ interest in an educational way. For a day, anyway, MCAS prep wears history’s clothing.
Of course, the Challenger, which exploded after lift-off on January 28, 1986, is ancient history to middle and high school students. Not to adults, however. It’s one of those events where adults shake their heads and say, “I remember where I was when I heard the news.” So, a little background information is in order.
Youtube to the rescue. First we show this short Challenger lift-off video. In less than five minutes, the astronauts are humanized because we see them on film. Then, footage of the lift-off and the excited spectators at Cape Canaveral. This, as we all recall, was supposed to be the first mission to send a teacher — New Hampshire’s Christa McAuliffe — into space. Finally, after the malfunction and resulting explosion, we get brief footage of viewers below and even NASA workers at their controls. The short piece packs dramatic punch, so you want to introduce it with utmost seriousness.
Next, you tell the students that they will see the same speech that all of America watched on that somber night. Have them view the speech without reading along, so they can briefly discuss their impressions about President Reagan’s tone and delivery afterward. Here is the Challenger speech video.
Finally, students are ready to read in the test booklet what they just viewed. As usual, be sure they preview the questions first, writing down numbers of questions next to paragraphs the questions cite (if applicable). Then, as they read the speech, they will know when they are passing through an especially important paragraph.
Here is the relevant link to the released Grade 8 MCAS: Challenger speech and questions (2008 MCAS).
How students do their answers — alone or in groups — is up to you. Rest assured, however, that this little piece of history will stick with them for many years to come. It’s not just another dry practice session. It’s something that has visually made an impact.
Hey. Not a bad haul for a day of MCAS practice, don’t you think? Students might even pronounce MCAS practice “sort of, maybe, kind of fun.”
Well, about as “sort of, maybe, kind of fun” as MCAS practice can get, anyway….