My daughter is enrolled in the third grade at a Queens public elementary school. For the past two years, she has come home with report cards saying she performs below grade level in writing. Since I work as a writer I have been trying to help her formulate her ideas into words and then into coherent sentences. Although my daughter is conscientious about doing her homework, I have found she is not receptive to listening to my advice when it comes to helping her compose sentences and essays.
This year I finally made the decision to hire a tutor to help her place her words onto paper. I found a woman through an online tutoring service who had been teaching English Language Arts to middle school students at a Brooklyn public school for 11 years. The New York City Department of Education’s English classes are comprised of speaking, listening, vocabulary, reading comprehension, grammar, and writing.
The tutor, Lisa Quercia, also prepares her own students for their yearly state exam, and last year was the first time she taught test preparation for the New York State Common Core Standards English Language Arts exam.
“This is the second real year for the Common Core Exam because the first year is really transitional,” she observed.
The Common Core Standards English Language Arts exam for grades three through eight is a three-day test on April 14, 15, and 16. It is comprised of the same types of questions for all six grades. Students are given three booklets: one to complete each day of the test. On the first day, there will be reading passages and multiple-choice questions. On the second day the test booklet is comprised of reading passages, multiple-choice questions, short-response questions, and one extended-response question. The third day’s booklet will have reading passages, short-response questions, and one extended-response question.
Students in grades five through eight will have an hour and a half each day to respond to all the questions in their booklet. Students in grades three and four will have an hour and 10 minutes each day to respond to the questions.
“There is just so much information packed into the English Language Arts testing booklet, so timing is important,” Quercia advises.
The night before the exam, Quercia tells parents to make sure their children get enough sleep.
“It’s also important to build confidence in your children, so tell them to do the best they can do,” she says. On the day of the exam, Quercia advises that students eat a healthy breakfast. “If students eat any sugary foods or drinks for breakfast, then they get tired in the middle of the exam,” she observed.
The reading passages are separated into four categories: expository (explanatory), argumentative, instructional, and narrative. Creating a seven-step guide for answering the multiple-choice questions, Quercia says, “I always tell my students to read the directions first. Then, take a look at the title of the piece and also see if there are any pictures to scan over. Sometimes the directions might give them a hint. They might say ‘read this article,’ then you know it’s non-fiction and you’ll probably learn something. If the directions say ‘read this story,’ then you know you’re going to have characters, settings, problems, and solutions.”
Another tip Quercia tells her students is to preview the question before reading the passage.
“I tell them to read the questions first because it gives you an idea about what the passage is about and an idea about what you should be concentrating on,” she said.
After the students preview the questions, Quercia recommends that they read the passages actively.
“Students should be looking for key details from the questions as they read. They can bring and use highlighters on the exam and highlight information that is part of the answer later, but they shouldn’t get carried away with highlighting because it can slow them down.”
As far as answering the multiple-choice questions, Quercia encourages students to use process of elimination. Encouraging students to go back to the passage to find the answers, she says, “They can flip back as much as they need to.” Because an electronic machine scores the multiple-choice part of the test, she says it is important that children fill in all of the bubble for their answers.
As Quercia has proctored the test for many years, she has seen every possible problem happen.
“Every now and then I would catch a kid just answering in the test book and then waiting to transfer the answers to the answer sheet. That can be a disaster if the student puts one answer in one wrong spot — then the whole test is wrong. It’s important that students put their multiple-choice answers on the answer sheet right away.”
In regards to leaving answers blank, Quercia advises, “Never leave multiple-choice questions blank. The teacher will give you a two-minute warning at the end of the test. With two minutes left, finish the question you’re working on and then you might be able to start one more. Bubble in answers if you have five blank answers left. Just guess. Bubble in ‘C, C, C’ or ‘A, B, C, D.’ There’s no penalty for guessing.”
In regards to the extended-response questions, Quercia uses a formula that her school has been using for years called RAFT. As she explains, “R stands for ‘restate the question.’ A is ‘answer the question’ or parts of the question. F stands ‘for example.’ That’s where you give, for example, your text details. Students can quote the text details or paraphrase them. T is to ‘tie it together,’ to conclude it. Tie your conclusion back to the topic sentence in the introduction. Use summary type phrases like ‘as you can see.’ Those four steps should give you a good solid essay.”
Quercia warns about a part of the exam where students are asked to read two passages on the same topic.
“There will be a paired passage in one of the test booklets. It’s probably the third day. It’s two passages on a similar topic. You’ll read the passages and then there will be questions only about the first passage. Then there will be questions just about the second passage. Then there might be a short-response question about both. Then you write an extended-response question and you must include details from both passages as it says it in the directions.”
Since teachers from other schools will grade the short- and extended-response questions, Quercia says handwriting should be neat and legible.
“I’ve scored the test for the city and you’re sitting in this room with all of these other teachers reading test after test after test. Once you come across that test that’s sloppy, you really have to keep deciphering it. You can ask the other teachers to come over and have this whole group discussion about this one test book because you can’t read it. The truth is the test is easier to grade when it’s legible.”
To obtain more information about the New York State Common Core Standards exams, educators, parents and students can visit the website www.engag
Allison Plitt is an English Language Art writer who lives in Queens with her husband and young daughter. She is a frequent contributor to New York Parenting.
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