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Last-Minute Quick Tips For the MCAS ELA Open Response

Last- minute quick tips for the MCAS ELA open response

Simple techniques to improve performance

by Joan Reissman, Blended Learning Specialist
Many students lose points on the ELA open response questions. We know that some students don’t like to write. But even so, we can improve their performance with some simple techniques.

The 2017 average on ELA multiple choice questions was 80%. Yet the average on open response questions was only 68%. The discrepancy is not due to test position: students did best on the first and last questions of the four open response questions (Reading Comprehension section). So how can we help students score at least a 2 or 3 on open responses?

There’s a very handy tool on the DESE website under the MCAS section. It’s called Student Work/Scoring Guides. Just go to You will see sample student responses for all subjects and grades. Going over student responses in class builds confidence and helps students see that they can earn points by expressing a few simple ideas. Go over an example as a group and then take another question and have students grade the responses. This exercise can be done individually or in groups.

Let’s examine question 28 on the 2017 10th grade on the ELA exam. The average score on that question was the lowest of the four open response questions. This question was the only comparative open response question on the exam, which indicates that students had more trouble comparing and contrasting two texts. It’s not simply a matter of not understanding a complicated text. Students did well on many of the multiple choice questions that referred to these same texts, and the multiple choice questions that gave students the most trouble were also comparative questions. The problem is not comprehension, it’s comparison.

‘Remind students always to attempt an answer. Don’t leave blanks.’

As a teacher, your first step to improving scores is to practice comparing excerpts. Make sure students are grasping the important ideas in each text. Make sure they are reading actively by putting a two or three word summary at the end of every paragraph or stanza. This is a quick way to highlight ideas and make sure that students don’t read an entire passage without concentrating. Although these texts are lengthy, there are concrete expressions that state the characters’ points of view. Make sure your students can identify these expressions. This is the kind of “relevant and specific detail “that the scoring rubric loves.

This question, #28, asks students to compare key ideas in John Green’s “The Fault in Our Stars” and T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Both works address the question of what makes a meaningful life and whether or not leaving one’s mark on the world matters. The two characters in “The Fault in Our Stars” disagree on the importance of meaningful accomplishment as a measure of the value of a person’s life. The speaker in “Prufrock” reflects on both viewpoints.

Have students note the main idea at the end of every paragraph or stanza so that they have a good foundation of data. These ideas about what makes life meaningful are complex, but they are clearly stated in the works. The response that received a 2 had only one sentence for each of the four points needed: Hazel’s view of life, Augustus’s view of life, and the two relevant Prufrock lines that reflected these opposing views. The student writer identified the salient points without much detail and still received partial credit. Adding one or two more details would have raised the score to at least a 3.

The tactic is to show students that they can gain points even without a full explanation. Each detail counts. Of course you always want to shoot for the maximum amount of points, but if you teach your students the basic technique of identifying, noting and then transcribing key phrases and details, they will get higher scores. It’s an additive process.

Finally, remind students always to attempt an answer. Don’t leave blanks. Only an answer with incorrect or very vague, imprecise information will receive a zero. A blank is always a zero. Remind struggling students that they can write very basic information, just a few sentences, and still receive a 1 or 2. Those points add up!

Related post: MCAS 2.0 Previews: An Opportunity for Growth

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