Saturday, March 8, 2008

Four Square: a Simple Way to Improve Test Scores and Write with More Detail

A couple of weeks ago the Mount Pleasant fourth grade team met with Mrs. Bozek to go over the recent NECAP test results. There are many written response questions on the test where students have up to a whole page to fill in an answer. Despite all the training and strategies that we had gone over with students in order to prepare them for the test, we all noted that during the test many students only wrote simple one line responses in their test booklets. Nine students who are now fourth graders missed achieving the next level on their tests by just one point. We discussed how these questions can be worth 4 points each and were graded as 1 point per valid detail. Our students were giving a correct answer and then moving on thinking their work was done, instead of providing more details that would garner them additional points. We discussed how we need to impress upon them the idea that they need four responses for these questions. We played around with ideas and came up with a plan that we call the "Four Square" strategy after the popular playground game.

We decided to train students to draw a small foursquare game board on their page to plan out four details before answering a question. They could put words, phrases, pictures, or page numbers in each square. They would learn to value giving more detailed answers when writing and hopefully learn a technique to earn more points when taking a test.

I immediately wanted to introduce the technique to my class, so the next morning as they arrived in the class they were prompted to redraw a 4square box on a paper and to list one positive descriptive adjective for themselves in each box. At morning meeting time they brought their pages up and handed them in. I read them anonymously and tried to see if anyone could identify the person I was reading about. Sadly many children didn't have even 4 adjectives down and many were simple words like "nice". Something needed to be done, so I changed gears and changed the assignment. This time I said a student's name and the classmates gave me 4 different adjectives to describe that student. We were able to talk about the difference between "rich" adjectives" and "cheap" ones (like nice). Everyone wanted their turn and we quickly made it through everyone in the class. I wrote down for each person their 4square chart so that they could keep and reflect on it. Strangely enough one adjective was repeated for every boy and one for every girl. Each girl was "beautiful" and every boy was "active".

After being introduced to the 4square chart we started using them in language arts activities. Many questions in the Scott-Foresman curriculum lend themselves to this strategy. The mid point and end of story questions are perfect and many of the "test prep" questions are the ideal setup for such a stategy. At first I had the students prepare answers on a 4square chart with partners. Then we discussed the answers and wrote out how an answer would look on the whiteboard together. After practice they started doing this on their own. After three days of practice they were ready to write out an answer on their own using the method. I found they gave much more detailed answers and spent more time reflecting on writing a good answer rather than just getting the question over with. Of course, you would need to find a question with 4 or more details that students can find, although you could also tell them to put an X through one square if only 3 details were available for an answer.

This stategy can be introduced at all grade levels during many lessons and activities. We just need to emphasize that 4square is a valuable technique. I think that if we do it well and the kids catch on, we can see a large increase in our scores on the NECAP tests!

UPDATE: The next time (Fall 2009) the students at Mount Pleasant School took the NECAP test, the school passed the reading portion of the test for the first time in years!!! Hopefully they will continue to improve their test scores through using the four-square method and all the other techniques that the teachers at Mount Pleasant are so good at teaching.

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