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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Leveling the Playing Field: How to Make Standardized Test Preparation Accessible to All Students

Andrea Alexander

Former attorney and a current graduate student at the University of MI

Andrea has been teaching, tutoring, and writing content for standardized test preparation for almost ten years, most recently for the online test prep company Grockit, which focuses on making standardized test preparation affordable and accessible for students around the world.

One of the great frustrations of being an educator is standardized testing. Because it is used to evaluate both students and teachers, it can be an important part of the educational experience. Teachers generally don't like to "teach to the test," however, and some standardized tests like the SAT test material that doesn't always come up organically in the classroom.

A further problem posed by standardized testing is that outside preparation courses can be prohibitively expensive, and aren't even available in all areas. This can leave teachers in rural or less affluent regions feeling that their students are at a disadvantage. So what can you do to level the playing field and help your students be prepared for standardized tests without devoting too much classroom time and too many resources to that end?

Strategy 1: Encourage Predictive Reading Habits

As a veteran test-prep instructor, I can say with confidence that one of the most difficult areas for students to see real improvement in during a typical eight- to twelve-session prep course is reading. That's because reading habits are formed over many years, and generally can't be changed significantly in mere weeks.

In the classroom, you can help instill the kinds of reading habits that will help students on standardized tests by emphasizing passages of approximately the same length as those used on tests (these vary, but 600-800 words is a safe estimate) and helping students develop predictive reading habits like articulating a passage's main idea, tone, structure, and purpose. These are issues that commonly arise in the questions accompanying a passage, and most standardized test prep curriculum encourages students to think about them after reading the passage but before approaching the questions.

Even a routine reading assignment that isn't accompanied by questions can lend itself to this kind of thinking, and you'll be giving your students the groundwork for success on reading comprehension sections without them even noticing.

Strategy 2: Build Good Vocabularies

Like reading, this is something that can be worked into your lessons unobtrusively. Helping your students build a better vocabulary will benefit them on standardized tests and in many other areas of their lives. Encourage students to write down unfamiliar words and look them up; address tough words yourself by analyzing roots, prefixes, and suffixes. And don't just leave this task for language arts teachers. Everyone -- including science, math, even physical education teachers -- can help students develop the kind of vocabulary that will make them better test-takers.

Strategy 3: Take Advantage of All the Resources Offered by the Internet

Test preparation, like many other things, has become widely available on the Internet. Most online courses are less expensive than live ones, and have the advantage of being available anywhere with Internet access. These resources include practice questions and explanations, video lessons, and how-to guides. There are many companies offering these kinds of study aids, including two of the largest in the business, Kaplan and the Princeton Review, and other more inexpensive options, such as Grockit.

Although offerings vary from one company to the next, features that your students should look for include opportunities for online interaction with teachers and other students, customizable sets of practice questions, and diagnostic feedback that allows for tailored study plans. Some companies also make limited resources available for free, or grant full access for a trial period. These online resources, and others like them, can be extremely helpful for students whose test preparation might otherwise be limited to the books available in the school library, and the price is within reach for many families; although the costs vary from one company to the next, online courses or memberships generally cost from 100 to 300 dollars.

By adding a few simple approaches into their lesson plans and exploring developments in online standardized test prep, such as practice questions, video tutorials, and forums, teachers can integrate the skills that help students add points to their scores into the classroom and make test preparation attainable for any student with an internet connection. Students should not be denied the opportunity to maximize their test score because of their location or financial situation, and as teachers, we have the chance to help level the playing field.

Andrea Alexander

Former attorney and a current graduate student at the University of MI
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