Findings and Lessons


February 2017

Using the literacy block for state test prep: an ill-advised plan of action

At this time of year in classrooms across the country, test-prep strategies are on smartboards and computer screens during literacy blocks, and text-prep workbooks are on students’ desks. The content addressed comes mostly from prior tests—in many cases, targeting test items that students had trouble with the year before. But it’s a mistake to spend much instructional time teaching to test items. Why? Two reasons are enough for us:test prep

First, and most importantly, test prep doesn’t build children’s reading skills, and therefore should not cut into the instruction that we are counting on to create successful readers. Yet we know test prep does cut into literacy instruction at this time of year. Why doesn’t working on the literacy questions from prior tests build critical literacy skills? Because the types of test questions asked and practice activities included are mostly focused on literacy performances, not skills (read our December post to learn more). While practicing literacy performances is not without some merit, such work should be called just that—test prep—and not veiled as literacy instruction. Test prep might have its place taking only a very small amount of instructional time, but should not be rationalized as worthy of the time designated for literacy instruction. The real work needed for long-run gains for readers –and therefore test result gains — gets at building children’s code and meaning-based skills (learn more here)  – including working on letter sound correspondence, or building knowledge and language through complex text and structured discussions. These are the skills that lay the foundation children need to become strong readers and to successfully complete the literacy performances that make up those yearly state tests.

Second, spending much time on test prep is a mistake because the test prep materials are based on prior years’ state test items, often taking into account the local population’s scores. This means the materials may or may not overlap with the upcoming test—some state assessments change considerably from year-to-year. Our students may get a bump in the short term because of familiarity with the way to approach the test-taking task or the kinds of questions they might encounter, but this type of instruction—test-prep based on potentially the wrong types of test items –should not take time away from the knowledge and skill-building that our students need. As indicated above, even if the materials happen to be similar, the bulk of what is included will not advance children’s reading skills and competencies because the test items are really a proxy for a cluster of skills, and don’t attend to the underlying skills our students need to learn and practice.

When test prep takes over, we see the same kids struggle year-after-year. In addition, we send signals to the teaching force, new teachers especially, that this is literacy instruction—and it’s not. In the end, only bits and pieces of information are learned from the hours put into state test preparation; true literacy growth doesn’t happen — and we can’t get those instructional minutes back.