When I was teaching, part of preparing students to succeed on the annual state exam was teaching them how to respond to open-ended essay-style questions. Unlike some other question types where you can use strategies such as eliminating incorrect answers or comparing similar/opposite responses to the question asked, essay-style questions vary in response depending on the content area asssessed and the requirements one's answer must meet according to the question. Here's some advice for making sure your responses get you the most points possible on these kinds of assessment questions.
Read the directions or questions. It's simple but oftentimes students answer the wrong question or put too much into questions because of this one reason. Not understanding the format of the questions or the differences between examine, infer, and conclude makes the difference between being successful and missing the question regardless of whether you know the content or not.
Practice. This is almost as important as the first point because it helps students prepare for success. I tended to reformat my assessment questions to mirror the assessment based on previously released tests/prep materials and similar tests in other states. Practice demystifies the kinds of questions students see as well as allow you as a teacher to notice patterns in terms of what's typically covered and to what degree it's assessed on the test.
Stick to the question. It's tempting to write to your heart's content, especially if you have loads of knowledge or it's a topic for which you have a strong opinion. Don't. Not if you want to have time to review the question or get the highest points possible. You're being evaluated on how well you answered the question and NOT on how much you wrote. If it's facts they're looking for, don't put your own opinion in the mix. If you have problems with sticking to the question [like I do at times], then the following tip should help you.
Have a strong plan or formula. For short responses, stick with 3 - 5 sentences max, with your main idea and 2 - 3 supporting details or facts. For longer responses, 3 - 5 paragraphs are good, with a short introduction and a paragraph that addresses each part of the question. Also, check the exemplary sample responses and study those. Emulate those kinds of answers in your response and model that for students.
Use illustrations and diagrams when needed. Particularly for science and math questions, creating an image or diagram may help convey a topic or concept that's easier to illustrate than to write. Sometimes, a picture (or diagram) is worth a thousand words and depending on the rubric used to assess the question, may be a sufficient response.
Let the passage guide you. Some ideas, especially for lower-level questions, you can get from the passage itself. Particularly if you're asked to write an opinion based on the passage, it makes a stronger argument [and points] if the response pulls information from the passage.
Write neatly. I've seen lower scores assessed just because the responses can't be read clearly. This simple point influences the scores more than you know, so take the time to choose your best writing style and do that!
Have any more tried-and-true methods for successful writing responses? Share below.