Saturday, August 25, 2012

My Internal Conflict: R4P Boosts Test Scores

School has started again, and I've met my students. I love having new students who don't know me or a thing about the class. They come in, look at the book shelves literally groaning with books, and wonder what they've gotten themselves into. I love having students who've taken the class before 'come home' for another semester of reading. They help me create a supportive climate for reading and writing and thinking from the first day. This semester, two boys have returned for their fourth semester! We laugh and say they're majoring in R4P.

I always talk about all the reasons to take my class and I watch heads nod in agreement. Some kids are avid readers like me and love the idea of getting credit for what they'd do anyway. Some students used to love reading and are willing to try again. Some are preparing themselves for the added demands of college reading. Some are forced to take the class, our only option for students who really need a remedial class...special education students (this semester I have between 6 and 10 special needs students in each section) whose teachers schedule them into the class; remedial readers who need more practice but there's no remedial classes offered; English-language learners who need to interact with print; foreign exchange students who want to learn more about American books and work on their English. I also know I'll have kids who don't like to read whose parents have seen the class in the course catalog and think it'll be 'good' for their children. Then there's the random student who, for no reason, finds himself in my class.

It's a real mixed bag. 155+ students, probably that many motivations for being in class.

A few years after I created the class, I learned some kids took it for a reason I SHOULD have guessed and didn't. They needed to improve their ACT scores for college. Instinctively they knew a class where they'd read and write every day would be helpful. They couldn't articulate why, but they knew it would help.

I'll admit, there's that part of me as an educator who hates the fact I'm using test scores as a way to sell my class. I know standardized tests have their place, but they also have limitations. And the fact that so many tests, ACT included, are high stakes -- deciding students' futures -- makes me cringe.

Then I step back and remind myself I'm NOT contributing to the huge testing industry. I'm not selling ACT prep books or courses or modules. I'm not hawking my wares to desperate students and their parents. I'm making a space in their day to read books they choose, and I'm giving them an authentic audience for their thoughts about books. I'm giving them books. I'm getting to know them well enough so I can match their interests and abilities to books. I'm sharing books and asking them to share.

The work we do in F4P contributes to their development as people, not test takers. If they improve their test scores, that's a lovely side benefit, but not the reason.

I told my new students my story yesterday. I told them IF they do intend to raise their ACT scores, I think I know how it'll happen. We acknowledge the fact that the reading and social studies and science sections of the test have long passages to read. Sometimes students can't focus on these passages, sometimes their attention spans are too short, their confidence levels are low. Sometimes they can't read fast enough to finish the selections. All these difficulties have nothing to do with their reading comprehension. And all these behaviors are ones students will work on through the course of our semester together. We sit for increasingly-longer amounts of time and read. Students who can't sit still at the beginning of the semester learn to be quiet and focused for longer and longer amounts of time. They discover their reading zone because they are truly motivated to read the books they've chosen. There is an inherent interest in their books and a real reason to read. I use the word 'stamina' to describe this ability...they're building reading stamina just as a long-distance runner would build her stamina.

The other reason I believe my class contributes to higher test scores is reading speed. Daily practice helps students read faster. Most of my students want to read faster when they set semester goals...they believe they read too slowly. That would be huge handicap on timed tests like the ACT. Students often speak of their anxiety trying to finish before time is called. Reading more quickly will hep all students when faced with those long passages.

So, I have tried to come to peace with telling students my class can help their test-taking abilities. I justify my stance by telling myself and them that I'm NOT changing my curriculum to practice for tests, not cutting something from my class to practice and prep. I'm giving time and space and books to readers.I'm providing authentic practice for tests and for life.

Tests are an ugly reality in my students' lives. They'll decide if my students are accepted into college, how much scholarship money they'll earn...I didn't make this world. No one consulted me. IF they had, I'd've told them what I think of their tests. BUT no one asked.

Here's what my students told me about how my class helped them in the nasty world of standardized testing.

  • After taking this class, my ACT reading score went up 5 points!
  • After my last semester in R4P, my ACT score when up 4 point in reading and 2 points overall from 24 to 26. My mom wants me to keep taking the class because as far as she’s concerned, if it raises my ACT score, it’s making me money.
  • Helped me on my ACT after learning the patience required to sit still and read. My English and reading scores improved
  • My ACT reading went up 4 points
  • R4P has helped me to be able to focus for long periods of time and stay attentive. It has helped tremendously with the ACT
  • R4P has increased my ability to read faster and my comprehension when I do, helping me on my AP test and even when I forgot to do my Astronomy homework and needed to highlight fast.
  • Reading used to mean squat to me. Now I absolutely LOVE to read! Since starting this class, I’ve increased my ACT reading score, which got me an academic scholarship, and I can actually pay attention in English class when we read
  • The class really helped me with AP English readings…and to read faster for the ACT and AP tests
  • The last time I took the ACT I got 31 on English and 33 on Reading!
  • The most compelling reason to take this class, I think would be that it improves your English and reading, not only for school, but also for the ACT more importantly
  • There is so much to read on the AP Stats and AP English test that it is sometimes hard to finish in the allotted amount of time. Because of R4P. I was able to finish reading all the passages and answering all the questions way before time was up and was actually able to go through and check my answers.


  1. For the first time in my 26-year career, I'm teaching a remedial reading class this year for our 9th graders who didn't pass their 8th-grade reading test, and I appreciate everything you post about your R4P class; you've given me a wealth of ideas and (most importantly) ways to encourage the students to use the process for more than just a grade. Have you ever tried student blogs as a reader's journal?

    Keep up the good REAL work of education, Claudia!

  2. I've taught remedial reading too...I have a reading specialist degree...I've taught elementary and secondary. This class doesn't look much different than my remedial classes...except for numbers of students...we all read every day then we wrote. We shared our books. The one thing I haven't been able to translate into this class is the individual conferences...I could do it with 15 kids in a class, and still model reading from my own books (which I think is vital! Kids need to see me reading the books they've recommended to me!). I can't do it with 33 per class. I'd love to stay in touch and visit! I spent part of the afternoon today with a friend who's teaching 3rd grade and is working to establish reading journals with her students...

    Thank you for your words...This REAL work will become much more difficult, I fear, once CCSS is reality. Personal response, personal connections, are not valued as reading strategies. Makes me sad.

  3. Because I took your R4P class 8 years ago, I am still in love with reading books. I have increased my reading speed (which has always been a lot slower than most people) and my reading comprehension because of your class! Every time I pick up a book, I think back to your class...and wish I was still in it! And I always wonder "What would Swish say about this book?" after I am done reading it. Lol. I really hope this class stays around for my kids when they reach high school. Especially my Zoey, who is more than likely autistic (she's being tested and tested and tested and....and...) and, I think, would benefit from a class like this!
    I also believe that your class made me realize how much I LOVE to read! I hope that I can pass on my love for reading to my girls, and so far, I feel like I am succeeding. (They beg me to read story after story during night time.) I also have taken your R4P idea, and created a time in my day for my girls and I to read any book we want. Since neither can read, I spend an hour reading any book they wish to them. I think it has broadened Seyhan's imagination as well as understanding of the world around her. And for Zoey, she can now sit for the full hour and pay attention to the books since I started this!
    Thank you for being such an inspiration and awesome teacher, Mrs. Swisher! <3 <3

    1. Actually, let me rephrase this: Because I started my own R4P hour, Zoey can sit through it with toys and other distractions on a GOOD day. We're still trying to work on attention span and eye contact. :)

    2. Christina, would you be willing to write something for me to publish here? Your thoughts, your struggles, your vision as a young mom are so important...think about it!

  4. Christina, I'm proud of you and Zoey and Seyhan! Your road won't be easy, it sounds like. But you're doing so many things right...reading, spending time with your girls, looking for answers.

    That time with her books is good for Zoey, and she enjoys it. I love that you're continuing our love of reading and books...your girls will remember this with joy!!

    Proud of you!

  5. I didn't know you could take R4P four times! They only let me take it twice! :(

    Agreed on standardized testing -- It seems the only reason they're important is to get into college and get good scholarships. That's fine and dandy, but for those of us who are just as intelligent as the next guy, but can't seem to salvage our ACT scores for the life of us, this just sucks. I didn't have the worst ACT score, but I didn't have the best, either. So I got into OU automatically, but I didn't get any major scholarships. And this is all based on a number that doesn't test your abilities at other things you might be really talented at (like writing creatively, for example).

    I applaud you for not giving into what secondary education seems to think is important: standardized testing. I have quite a few friends at OU who went to different high schools throughout the state, and they always say that high school was a joke for them because, if they learned anything, it was all to prep for the ACT or SAT. That is just pretty sad to me. But Norman North wasn't entirely like that, so I'm glad to have had the high school education I had. I know I'm pretty blessed because of it.

    From reading your students' comments, it kind of sounds like the ACT is super important to them. That kind of saddens me because I feel like high school is about so much more than just the ACT… There are a lot of life lessons to learn in high school. There are also plenty of other academic subjects you can learn about that AREN'T tested on in the ACT. And if kids would rather take a study hall period just to keep studying for standardized tests rather than, say, a creative writing elective, that just makes me really sad. But I'm probably assuming too much here, aren't I?

    Wow. I didn't realize how passionately I felt about this subject until I started writing this comment. Sorry for the lengthiness and getting carried away--but feel free to comment back if you have any thoughts re: my thoughts.

    P.S. I soooo miss you and R4P! Wish I had a R4P class at OU…

    1. Paige, I love your reflection...but I always loved reading your Christina, you're deep and insightful...I am so frustrated with the current world that judges kids (and their teachers and their schools) based on test numbers. Tests are subjective, and don't really measure what we know...they measure how test-wise we are. All that ACT prep is a way to continue the kids' parents pay for tutors and classes and all the rest...and truly, any test prep is actually cheating!! It manipulates the test results...

      I am proud that my class contributes to stronger students, faster readers, life-long readers...and I feel like I'm cheating when I also say I contribute to higher test scores...

      You're right...for some kids that number on the ACT means everything. And truly, what does it really tell us about kids? What we're finding out is it's not as good a predictor of college grades as HIGH SCHOOL GRADES.

      I'm so cynical. I believe you and every other student goes through all this agony so College Board can continue to rake in the dough...

      I miss you...would love to have you expand your thoughts...I'd publish them here in a heartbeat!! Think about it.

      MISS you too!