How I teach to the test in the Chicago Public Schools

Contributing to low scores by ignoring the skills on standardized tests perpetuates the classist, racist, sexist views many activists claim to be fighting against.


High school CPS students and teachers are in crunch mode the next few weeks—19 days to the ACT.  18 days.  17.  The countdown continues.

It reminds me of the first time I ran the Chicago Marathon over ten years ago.  I was never a runner.  When I was 24, I started running and kept running for a couple of years, but I only ran 2-3 miles at a time.

One spring, I started challenging myself at McKinleyPark.  “Four times around today—that’s four miles.”  One Saturday in June, I went around seven times.  “I ran seven miles!” I told my colleague who was training for the marathon.  She wasn’t impressed.  “If you run a couple more this week, you’re on track for marathon training,” she said.  So I did it.  And that October in 2000, I ran my first marathon in 4 ½ hours.

To succeed as a marathoner, I needed short- and long-term goals.  I recognized this would be intense, so I paced myself and asked for lots of guidance.  I knew that any logical person could not start training for the marathon a few weeks before the October run.  He would not succeed.  He would do his body damage.

Yet, this intense approach is what many teachers and district leaders are taking these weeks before the ACT.  “It’s ACT-prep time,” we hear over and over.  Because so many educators take this intensive-training approach, students don’t show much progress in April.  Actually, if students are to succeed on the ACT, the whole year should be ACT-prep time and, sadly, it is.  We’re overloaded with tests and are left little time to teach.

In my eighteen years as an educator, this is the year my students and I faced more tests required by central office or our network office—seven!  Count ‘em—seven!

  1. A September REACH assessment at the beginning of the year, which will be used in my evaluation, to see if students can distinguish between main ideas and supporting details
  2. An October beginning-of-the-year ACT-like assessment to gauge my students’ English skills
  3. A November interim ACT-like assessment to gauge my students’ growth in these English skills
  4. A January middle-of-the year ACT-like assessment to again gauge my students’ growth in these English skills
  5. Recently, a March interim ACT-like assessment to gauge my students’ growth, yet again, in these English skills
  6. In April, the ACT for juniors
  7. Finally, all of my students will take another REACH assessment at the end of the year to see how well they can now distinguish between main ideas and supporting details.

This, of course, is in addition to semester finals (which I don’t believe in) and any other assessments I design for my instruction.  Because I teach two sections of AP English Language, my students will take that test, too.  Like all good teachers, I’m asking, “When am I supposed to teach?”

Assessment Isn’t Bad—There’s Just Too Much of It

When I trained for the marathon, I had to assess my progress regularly, make a plan, and sometimes take a break from running.  I needed to see how I was developing as a runner.  Now as a writing teacher, I need to know how my students are developing, or struggling, as writers.

Assessments are necessary, and multiple-choice tests can serve as quick snapshots that help teachers make immediate changes to their instruction.  If I assigned essays all the time, my grading would never end.  If designed correctly, a few multiple-choice items give students and teachers the information they need.

After all, how will I know what my students can do if I don’t give them an opportunity to show me before I teach them?  If I don’t do some type of assessment, I run the risk of giving in to a deficit-based model where my juniors and seniors start with subject-verb agreement (like I did every year in high school) or of me not knowing which learning gaps to address so my students grow as writers.

But what our CPS leaders are asking us to do is simply inefficient and questionably effective.  We are expected to do this:

  1. Take the 75-item assessment ourselves each time and predict which items students will get correct and incorrect and why (by percentage).
  2. Use a whole class period or lose a day of instruction to give the assessment.
  3. Review the results of the 75-item assessment for up to 150 students on an online database that’s not dependable (it was down on a February professional development day),
  4. Devise a lengthy plan and make instructional decisions for up to 5 classes.
  5. Implement this plan in a few weeks before the next assessment, which means designing lessons, making copies, creating quizzes.
  6. Then there’s the awkward meta-cognitive charts we’re supposed to have students fill out so they can track their progress about standards that are written for teachers, not students.

What our district leaders expect me to do takes too much time and leaves little time for students to learn and apply skills before—BAM!—another assessment.

So What’s a Good Teacher to Do?

Some days, I don’t know.  I do know, however, when I’m supposed to pick my battles.  So I go with the flow and, instead, implement my own approach to help students learn and master the ACT English College Readiness Standards.  I do this, however, the whole year—not a few weeks before the big test.

Just like marathon training, there are lots of ways to do this.  I used the training approach that challenged me comfortably.  I do the same with writing instruction and test prep.

My approach is simpler than the district’s or network’s.  I started this targeted approach about six years ago and helped other colleagues in my English department use it, too.  At that school, the number of students who scored a 20 or higher on the English portion of the ACT went up 13% in about three years.  Their writing improved immensely, too.  At my current school, I continue these approaches and help my colleagues.  Last year, our average English ACT score rose from a 15 to a 17—the highest increase in the city.  These approaches were one of the contributing factors.  Our students’ writing is also improving impressively.

What’s most valuable about my approach is that while I help my students learn English skills and conquer multiple-choice tests, I do not sacrifice critical thinking or my students’ creativity.  In fact, mastering these skills contributes to their confidence and competence as writers.

Step 1: 

Select a theme that logically fits into the beginning, middle, or end of school year:

Example: 1st Quarter Theme—Experience: Memory and Observation as Evidence

Step 2:

Articulate the enduring understandings and essential questions (and thank Google and colleagues whose ideas I copied).  This helps my students understand what we’re learning and why.

Enduring Understanding Example: Experiences are the vehicle for constructing knowledge, acquiring skills, and developing habits of mind.

Essential Questions Examples: Which experiences do we value?  How do our experiences affect our perception of reality?

Step 3:

Decide on the performance task—the real-world response students will create at the end of our lessons to demonstrate their learning.  These are the guidelines and examples I start with, which also align with Common Core:

Narrative:  human experiences that engage us and push us to think deeply about our own lives

  • Personal statement for a college application
  • A magazine-style profile article of an interesting person
  • A poem or other creative piece inspired by another writer or artist
  • A photo essay with engaging, memorable captions

Expository: Informational pieces that engage us and help us understand a situation at a deeper level

  • A professional-looking brochure about an important place or event
  • An reworking of a longer text that reveals a deeper truth (think: movie / TV program preview)
  • A news article that presents both sides of a situation

Argumentative: Debatable responses to a larger conversation that propel us to decide what we should believe, communicate, or do

  •  A short research paper that is written to evoke a specific emotion in the audience (e.g. compassion)
  • An editorial or blog post about a situation in real life or a text

Step 4:

Select the standards and skills while keeping in mind the enduring understanding, essential questions, the performance task, and a multiple-choice assessment.  I have two options for the assessment.

Option A for Step 4:

Select one retired ACT passage—not the whole test—with 10-15 items and have students take this on a Scantron bubble sheet.  I make sure I identify which English standard and skill each item assesses.  I use the English ACT College Readiness chart for this.  This takes me about 10 minutes. Retired EXPLORE or PLAN tests are easy to find, too, but giving freshmen the first passage on the ACT is fine.  It’s usually the simplest.

Students will need 10-20 minutes to take the assessment, depending on the students.  This way, I don’t give up a whole period and the experience is low-stakes.  They do not get graded for this but they do receive participation points for taking it seriously (I trust they take it seriously if they devote at least 10 minutes to it).

Next, I run the bubble sheets through the scoring machine (a couple of minutes per class).  Most importantly—I run an item-analysis sheet (inexpensively available from the multiple-choice machine vendor) after each class.  This tells me the percentage incorrect for each item.  This low-tech approach is always dependable.

I then think about the performance assessment and which English skills would fit nicely.  I see 60% missed the topic development item, for example, so is this big argumentative writing assignment a good opportunity to teach this?

I select 4-5 skills per quarter and teach these as bell ringers or I devote 1-2 periods a week to this targeted writing instruction.  Yes, it’s test prep.  And it’s also giving students writing skills they need far beyond any standardized test.

At the end of the quarter in my action-based approach, students take the same assessment again.  They’ve learned a few writing skills between the assessments.  Now, they get a grade based on how many more they get correct.  In almost every single case, there is growth.  And if there isn’t, they get a chance to demonstrate their learning in the performance assessment—the truest demonstration of their learning.

Next quarter, I select a different ACT passage and repeat the process.

Option B for Step 4:

I recently found a phenomenal guide that can help almost any English teacher.  Michigan’s Department of Education developed the High School English Language Arts Companion Document that tells teachers:

  • How the ACT might assess each English skill
  • What students need to know to learn the skill
  • Online and print resources to teach this

I would use the Michigan document by completing steps 1-3 above then giving students a short in-class writing assignment, connected to the enduring understandings and essential questions, to see what they know and what they need help with.  Then, I would select the 4-5 skills to teach that quarter.

For a quick assessment a few weeks later, I’d give students a sentence with a mistake from student’s essay, along with other versions of the sentence.  One of them, of course, has to be correct.  A 10-item quiz would work and tell me if students improved their editing skills based on my instruction.

There are two more steps in my planning.

Step 5:

Select 3-5 texts (written, visual, audio) that we will examine closely.  These can be informational and / or literary.

Step 6:

Plan the day-to-day activities and smaller assessments to help students engage with the texts, with each other, with the real-world conversation that should matter to them.

But How Do Students Actually Learn the English Skills?

These are a few of the practical strategies from step 4 above:

Glue-It-and-Do-It #1

I copy this chart on colored paper and have students glue it to the top of a sheet in their notebooks.  They fill in the information I present from a writing instruction book.  A good instructional resource for middle school and high school is Writing First by Kirszner and Mandell.  The colored paper helps because I can say, “Take out the blue one” as the lessons continue.



Underneath the chart, students complete the skill development exercises.  Yup, ol’ school skill and drill a few minutes each period helps them.  When I ran, I had to warm up, stretch, and do drills to help me with the long runs.  The concept is the same.

Glue-It-and-Do-It #2

To see if they can apply these skills, I type out sentences from a text we’re reading and cut them into strips.  I have students glue the strip in their notebook.  They then edit the sentence using the skills I taught (e.g. punctuation: add commas in a series to this sentence from The Devil’s Highway by Luis Urrea)

Five men stumbled out of the mountain pass so sunstruck they didn’t know their own names couldn’t remember where they’d come from had forgotten how long they’d been lost.

I stopped having students copy them from the board because it took too long and sometimes they made mistakes.  Gluing the sentence strips saves time and is more effective.

Exit Tickets

I don’t grade the exercises under the glue-it-and-do-it.  They get participation or performance points for working honestly and productively.  Instead, I give them an exit ticket in template form or in ACT form to see if they get it after they practiced the skill.

These are some templates for subject-verb agreement with text in between.  I only grade the 1 or 2 sentences that will give me the most insight into their learning (but I don’t tell students that).

  1. These exercises , along with our essays, will . . .
  2. _____ , in addition to, _______
  3. The students, along with ____, (is / are) able to . . .
  4. All the homework, except for ___ , (do / does) _________
  5. ___ , including ____ ,

Ideally, I develop these to answer our essential questions so students develop concrete responses or reactions to abstract ideas.  How is justice manifested in our community?  When does humor become offensive?  How do we know what is unpopular actually is right?

Short ACT-Like Quizzes

I give about two of these per quarter.  Here’s one from a Maya Angelou memoir for parenthetical phrases and commas.




B. Parents, who could afford it

C. Parents who, could afford it

D. Parents, who, could afford it




B. pants, which would be pressed

C. pants which, would be pressed

D. pants which would be pressed


Conquer the Testing Culture—Don’t Be Conquered By It

As college-educated adults, we can criticize, disagree, or despise the amount of testing our students face.  And we should.  It’s too much.  We need to push our leaders beyond this.

But we cannot ignore the fact that the ACT or upcoming PARCC will have an impact on our students’ futures.  If we do not help students succeed on these standardized tests, they will likely never be able to gain access to our conversations as peers with college degrees.

In fact, contributing to low scores by ignoring the skills on standardized tests perpetuates the classist, racist, sexist views many activists claim to be fighting against.

We need to give our students access to the skills that will allow them to challenge ideas—even our own.

For me, it is personal.  My average ACT score helped me get accepted at DePaul.  In 1990, I was the only student from my neighborhood high school on the Southwest Side that went there.  If more of my teachers had been intentional about aligning their instruction with the ACT and helping me think critically (few of them did either), maybe I would have had the courage to apply to the University of Chicago.  I had the application in my hands.

Maybe a better score would have gotten me scholarships and I would not have risked dropping out because I had no more money to put myself through school.

As responsible educators, we have to balance our political agendas with our students’ needs.  We can say these tests don’t matter and that they don’t reflect our teaching or our students’ learning.  That’s fine.

But I challenge any high-school teacher to look at the ACT College Readiness Standards and find one thing on there that students should not know.  I’ve actually done this a couple of times and the teachers only responded with silence.

I challenge all educators and activists to do the same with Common Core Literacy Standards.  I challenge them to look at these and identify one thing students should not learn.

As a teacher, as a father, as a graduate of a neighborhood CPS high school, I challenge all educators to—first—take the standardized test they criticize to so they know what students are expected to do.  In most cases, like the ACT, like AP, like the upcoming PARCC, we’ll see that these are skills that students should develop.  And that we should be able to teach.

Then we need to find a way to incorporate these concepts into our teaching so they become part of what we do—in between the political, the creative, the academic, the interactive experiences we also create for students.

If teachers in previous grades did not do this, then we start where our students are and go from there.

In 2001, I ran the Chicago Marathon a second time and cut 15 minutes from my time.  I don’t run marathons anymore, but I have contemplated doing a triathlon.  However, to succeed, I need to learn how to swim competently and train a little at a time, for a long time—not a few weeks—before that physical test.


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