How to Create Independent Learners (that Pass the Test)

Today’s Contributor: Courtney Power-Freeman

I am a fifth grade teacher at Sunset Valley Elementary, a two way dual language campus. I am also my Campus Innovation Coach and a Master Blended Learning Teacher, plus a mother of two and a wife of one.

The State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) season is upon us here in Texas! While you might think that means we are out hunting stars from our horses or rustling up the stars, it really is very different. The STAAR  is our state-mandated high stakes test.  Every state has them: you may have the PARCC, Smarter Balanced, or any of various others .

The pressure to perform well on tests in Texas is extremely high, and student choice and creativity are the first things to be taken off the table for low scores: that is, schools and students who perform poorly often endure the strictest clampdown to prepare better for future tests. This practice goes against Zaretta Hammond’s Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, which states that independent learners rather than dependent learners will close gaps. I believe district leaders are well-intentioned in the short run, but in the long run, this is detrimental to the students as it will only create more long-term gaps in equity. Dependent learners are developed with restrictive teacher-led, whole group teaching methods.

Our school has had large gaps in Math results for years. Our white students outperform our Hispanic and Special Education Students by 40 to 50 percentage points. I address this gap in my Fifth Grade Math class by using personalized learning methods for STAAR prep. In this article, I will explain how to empower students to perform well on standardized tests and become independent learners in the face of testing. I will show how I empower the students to own their work, drive, and growth by developing their personal playlists to tackle the TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills), which are the standards the STAAR assesses. The TEKS are like Common Core for Texas.

Please note that this is the work we do in the Spring semester. The Fall is the time to learn math skills, practice behavior to work with playlists, and learn how to take ownership of their learning. At the very beginning of the Spring semester, the students take a previous STAAR test as their benchmark to see what they have learned and what they still need to practice .

How to Create Independent Learners that Pass the Test

  1. Students analyze their own data. Using benchmark tests, students determine which standards have been mastered and which have not.
  2. Students record their growth. The students highlight the TEKS they have mastered on TEKS Snapshot – Grade 5 Math.
  3. Students set a goal. Students look at the standards they have not highlighted and choose one for their weekly goal.
  4. Students form a plan to meet their goal.
    1. Students record their goal and determine how they will show their success. Often this is in a STAAR question-based assessment.
    2. Students choose their activities from a menu of options based on how they enjoy learning.

5. Students work. A work cycle includes rating their confidence level before and after each activity.  When they have finished all the activities, the students do their assessment and get their results.

6. Students reflect. After analyzing their results, they fill in their final reflections with the sentence stem provided. They decide if the work cycle was successful or to reiterate their plan.

7. Students meet with the teacher. I meet with each student throughout the week to discuss their progress, give feedback and answer any questions they have.

This is not what we do for the entire 75 minutes of Math class, but this is where the bulk of our efforts lie. This empowers the students to strive for mastery in the standards based on how they individually like to learn but they still have to show mastery in a STAAR format. We have high engagement, and everyone is an independent learner in the face of STAAR.

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