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April 7, 2021

Resolution: No More Drill-and-Kill Test Prep!

I know it seems too early to blog about test prep.  But in many low-performing urban schools, January 1st marks the unofficial start of test prep season.  I remember as a 7th grade CPS social studies teacher, I was called to the Principal’s office the week back from winter break and told to stop teaching social studies immediately.   Instead I was to use Test Coach worksheets as my “curriculum” until the test.   I felt nauseous leaving her office.  In my heart I knew these worksheets would not prepare my students with the skills they needed for high school and life.  Luckily I gathered myself and crafted a proposal to demonstrate how I’d teach social studies and prep kids for the assessment, which my principal accepted.  However, the following year social studies was eliminated to emphasize the “testing subjects” (Math and ELA).

Under Pressure

Administrators and teachers are under tremendous pressure from high stakes testing, more than ever before.  My principal was understandably stressed and desperate for answers.  She felt cramming for the test would help our students, who were 98 percent low income, earn a shot at selective enrollment schools (and keep our own school open).  Stress and anxiety can cause us to make hasty decisions and forget what we know.  Under normal circumstances she advocated for inquiry learning and never pushed a workbook.

Stress can also make us fall back into bad habits to self-soothe.  For me it’s the Snickers bar and soda from the gas station on the way home after a rough day.


Test prep worksheets are the educational equivalent of that Snickers bar.  They’re a bad habit from before we knew better, in a nice, ready to go package, with the illusion of nutritional value.  Both may temporarily soothe us and make us feel like everything is going to be okay, but in the long run they are empty calories.  Once the sugar rush wears off, we’re in worse shape than before.  Unhealthy, feeling guilty, lacking the energy for real change.

Merton’s Law of Unintended Consequences applies here.  An example: In order save trees, the government enacts a policy of extinguishing any fire in federal forests.  By not allowing the periodic, natural burns caused by lightning to clean out dead trees and underbrush, they create tinderbox forests.  The slightest spark leads to uncontrollable blazes.  Massive fires spread across states and consume countless acres.  Though well-intentioned, their actions hurt rather than help.

Too Much Too Late

This is true for drill-and-kill test prep as well.  A massive University of Chicago study “Too Much, Too Late” (2008) revealed ACT score gains were actually lower the more time schools spent with test prep and published prep materials,  even when controlling for factors such as race, SES, and prior achievement levels.  Thousands of dollars and countless hours of instructional time were wasted on drill-and-kill test prep that hurt rather than helped students.

Historically, some elementary schools have managed a bump in scores by cramming for the test, since those tests measured lower-level skills.  However, those gains were not sustainable.  As elementary tests continue to be revised to be more rigorous in alignment with CCSS, drill-and-kill approaches are even less likely to work.  At a recent CPS Assessment Institute, Paul Zavitkovsky echoed this message, emphasizing the need to “un-learn what we thought we knew” about raising scores on standardized tests.

So what DOES work?

The 2008 report highlights numerous factors associated with gains on the EPAS, which include students who earn good grades and schools with a college-going culture.  The instructional practices associated with gains are particularly interesting:

English Practices (in order of strength of relationship)

  • Have students improve a piece of writing as a class or with partners
  • Have students explain how writers use tools like symbolism and metaphor to communicate meaning
  • Have students discuss how culture, time or place affects an author’s writing
  • Have students rewrite papers or essays in response to comments
  • Have students debate the meaning of a reading

These practices are surprisingly similar to ideas shared in our CCSS Instructional Shifts workshops.  We’ve emphasized close reading and analysis of author’s craft such as symbolism and metaphor.  Teachers have used elements of Shared Inquiry, posing interpretive questions with more than one answer that can be supported by the text, to encourage authentic discussion.  We’ve encouraged writing workshop approaches, where practices such as shared writing, peer editing, and writing conferences help students become confident, capable writers.  Many high schools have gone a step further, introducing students to literary criticism, which includes using lenses (feminist, Marxist, reader-response, historical, etc.) to interpret writing.  AUSL and Life Long Learnings’s Critical Thinking cohorts have employed tools such as the Comparison Matrix and Elements of Thought to support reasoning, an essential element underlying all these recommendations.

A Qualifier

The 2008 study, while excellent, is looking at correlations or the strength of relationships, and is not making causal claims.  Classrooms where students are doing these things are more likely to get higher scores.  These instructional practices may be indicators of other important factors, such as teachers believing every student can learn, or students being motivated and engaged.  But if you have only a few months until the test, why not spend it with practices such as these which are associated with raising test scores, rather than drill-and-kill, which we know doesn’t work?

Avoiding drill-and-kill doesn’t mean give kids no preparation.  They need an opportunity to take timed practice tests to figure out an approach works for them.  They need help applying what they already know about reading and writing to artificial testing conditions.  Even progressive educators such Lucy Calkins include brief units prior to the test where they treat test reading and writing as a genre with its own unique characteristics.

What’s Your Resolution?

Like any resolution, as time goes by and stress and pressure build, we are more likely to slide back into our old ways.  What are you going to do to prepare your students and resist “Snickers bar” approaches to test prep?


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