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NYC Helpline: How To: Work with Students' Families

Preparing for High-Stakes Standardized Testing Lamson Lam

This is the first of several articles that will focus on the steps that a teacher can take to prepare their fourth grade class for the New York State English Language Arts (ELA) test in February and the New York State Math test in April. 

November Through the Lens of Test Preparation

November is an important month in the test preparation process.   You will have your first round of parent teacher conferences, and there are only 3 months left before the ELA.  You should be starting to feel a sense of urgency about the upcoming test but your children should not.

Preparing Parents -- Parent/Teacher Conferences

Take advantage of Parent - Teacher Conferences to discuss students' progress in approaching the standards and being prepared for the ELA.  Although some parents may not be as interested in standards and may not fully understand their significance, they will understand it when you talk about their child's progress in terms of being prepared for a high-stakes test that determines promotion and middle school admission.     

  1. Preparation: Be prepared for parents.  Have work samples, scores and homework and attendance records ready. 
  2. Questions: I like to begin by asking questions, " what have you noticed about your child and their work in fourth grade this year?" (How do you think your son/daughter is doing, do you have any specific concerns, etc.)
  3. Data: Then I show all the data that I have prepared, highlighting strengths first, followed by areas to improve and/ or appropriate goals.
  4. I mention the test (dates, stakes, last year's scores and how they can help at home.)

Preparing Yourself

Familiarize yourself with the ELA    

By now you should have a pretty solid idea of how well your children read and write.  You should know all your children's reading levels and be aware of some of their strengths and weaknesses as readers and writers. 

You should also be familiar with the test itself.  If you haven't already, you should have paged through a version of the ELA.  Ask your testing coordinator or principal to see old or sample copies of the ELA (online sample test).  My testing coordinator has copies of last year's test and has made them available for me to see and use for practice.  Try to look through a sample test with another teacher who has experience teaching fourth grade, she can help you to identify all of the different components of the ELA. 


Identify "At Risk" Students  Try to identify the children who you believe are "At-Risk" of failing the ELA. This is my criteria for "At-Risk" Status:

  1. Students who are holdovers because they failed the ELA last year
  2. Students who failed their reading test last year with either a 1 or a 2.
  3. Students who are reading below grade level as determined by any assessment tool.

Make sure these kids are always on your radar and plan an aggressive intervention plan to meet their needs.  Since these tests are high-stakes for your principal as well, she will be happy to provide extra support to the students in your class who need it most.  Some examples of the intervention plans I already have in place:

  1. One of my students "John," who got a 1 on his test in 3rd grade really struggles with fluency.  I have him reading Kindergarten texts with a Kindergarten buddy to improve his fluency.
  2. "John,"and some of my other low scorers from last year, are pulled out by the reading recovery teacher for "easier" test prep practice work (currently third grade level work) for one period a day.

Preparing The Children


 Your children should be reading and enjoying a variety of genre.  They should realize that they are reading for a purpose.  In my class, I have been reading fictional texts out loud and encouraging them to choose mostly fiction for their independent reading, but I have also been introducing them to non-fiction in guided (small group) reading and in social studies.   They should be able to recognize the elements of a story in fictional text (characters, setting problem and solution) and they should be able to recognize the features of non-fiction texts (headings, captions, fact boxes, graphs, etc.) and utilize these features to support their comprehension.  They should be able to state main ideas, discuss themes, recall details and answer text-based questions using details from the text in their answers.



 Your students should enjoy writing and be writing for real purposes (example:  Thanksgiving writing activity). By now they should have had an extended experience writing in one particular genre.  I started with personal narrative/memoir in October.  (They usually are asked to write a narrative piece on the ELA).  In November, we will be studying note-taking (another integral part of the ELA) and report writing in connection with our Native American Social Studies curriculum.

Specific, Isolated Test Preparation vs. Meaningful Curriculum-Based Test Preparation                       

You will have to make test preparation decisions based on your own education philosophy and the policy of your principal and staff developers.  My advice is to begin exposing your students to a few isolated test preparation activities in November.  If I am teaching them strategies on identifying sequence and we work on it together within our natural curriculum, I will assign and then review this strategy with them in a specific test preparation booklet.  One or two such activities a week in school and at home won't harm them and it will get them used to seeing test- like texts and test-like questions and it will help them to bridge the gap between what they are doing in class and what they will be asked to do on a test. 

Best of luck!  

Email me with any questions about Test Preparation, Family Involvement or Teaching Fourth Grade.



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