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Test Prep Doesn't Have to Be Overwhelming

Standardized tests are around the corner, bursting onto the scene with great academic hysterics. Schools are already having emergency meetings, signing legal documents full of dire security warnings, and printing advice on goldenrod paper with such sage wisdom as "Get sleep."

Meanwhile, inside the classroom, there's panic in the air, and panic is never a harbinger of success. Test prep generally takes the form of practice questions, daily drills at the start of class, or worse, a halting of curriculum altogether for the sake of administering entire packets of test questions daily.

But I don't think you should have to halt your teaching or philosophies to tackle standardized tests. I believe that a few simple strategies, combined with solid teaching, can result in some bang-for-your-buck test prep without sacrificing high-quality classroom time.

Practice Bubbling -- No, I'm Serious

After I went over the disastrous results of our school district's first assessment, my students and I realized the following: Bubbling is a skill, and we stank at it. I knew this because during the test, I had my students circle the answers in their test packet prior to bubbling their Scantron sheets to give us more data to look at when the results came back. This step allowed us to evaluate each answer and put a star by the ones we missed not because of content, but because of carelessness and sheer bubbling bumbling.

Remember, no task is too small that it can't contribute to great failures. Don't take for granted that something as simple as bubbling shouldn't be practiced.

Teach Them How to Speak Test

The language used in tests is unlike any language or dialect. Break down the more amorphous terms that we as educators often take for granted as common knowledge. The word analyze, for instance, is not easily defined. It's vague and, frankly, one that many teachers couldn't define without an "um, it's like . . ." as a lead in.

Make a list of the most common words used instructionally on the test. Remember that just telling students to "Read the directions" isn't enough if they can't understand the directions.

Stare Your Own Data in the Face and Model How to Use it Formatively

Don't be scared to analyze your own data. Use it to make prepping more efficient. By thinking aloud for your kids, be transparent in your analysis of how your own lessons went. They will also be more open to deeper reflection if they see it come from you.

Read your data, determining your lessons not on what you haven't taught yet but rather on what the data shows they don't understand yet. Spend time on what your students don't get, not on what they have already achieved.

Show them the Data, and Set Individual Goals

After you've modeled how to look at data honestly, then bring in the experts -- the students themselves. Ownership is a huge part of success. Have each student examine last year's scores, setting goals that they agree to reach for.

Break things down into concrete chunks. By getting the students to see that only one or two more questions answered correctly might have put them in a higher category, they can set more tangible goals in the form of an informal contract, a bar graph, or a reflection paragraph. Remember that "Do better next time" can't be achieved without defining better.

Build Confidence

By the time all is said and done, there's nothing you can do but say, "You're ready."

They have the knowledge to take these tests even if they don't know that they know it. It's called educated guesswork. And after years of school, and your teaching, they have some ability to do it. They just need to trust it.

Does it always work? Of course not. After all, there isn't some book out there for students like The Secret that says if you just think "proficient" hard enough, it'll happen. What I am talking about is spending some time leading up to these tests counterbalancing all of the negative input your students have heard about themselves or about their school.

Last year, I had my students write a Golden Line, words of encouragement for success, to their peers. They finalized their line onto a flash card and taped it to their desks for the testing group to see the next day. Here are some of their lines:

"I will take the test as if the answers were second nature."

"I shall enter school ready and prepared like a cowboy in a showdown."

"You can throw bullets and knives with your hard questions, but I shall dodge and shine through with triumph."

"Failing is not an option, and passing is my way to success."

"Fear is the only thing that is feeding the test's power over the students."

When it comes preparing students for tests, there's no magic bullet, but there is magic in the room when a teacher says with assurance, "You've worked hard, and this is just a way to show others what I already get to see every day. I'm not worried, and you shouldn't be either. You're ready."

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Sharon Munroe's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thank you very much for the amazing strategies on Test taking,Ms. WolpertGawron. I am a teacher of English at the Denmark- Olar High School situatd in Denmark, South Carolina. I am preparing the ninth graders for the End Of Course Standardized Test.I am studying with my kids for this test.Everyday we work on one aspect of the test-taking strategies. This is usually done at the beginning of the lesson after journal writing. Already I have incorporated the language of the test, but my students are struggling students and so I have to spend a long time on examples and modeling for them. Reading long passages are not entertaining for them.I sure need help in this area. However,despite this "agonizing pain" call reading,I do want to leave them with the idea that they are "ready."

Sharon Munroe.

Shawna's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am also going to share the "Golden Lines" with my students. I think they are wonderful and uplifting. We have been practicing how to bubble correctly in my class all year long. At first the students were pretty terrible at bubbling the answers. Now I am not seeing messy bubbles or students who skipped a question, etc. It was a real chore at the beginning of the year, but now the students can catch their own mistakes and even bubble in the lines. Rarely do I need to fix any messes on their answer sheet. Good luck with testing!

Heidi W's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach seventh grade math at a middle school in which I have 135 students. When the state test is given, all of my students have to be taking it at the same time, so my students are spread out between 5 classrooms with teachers who teach other subjects. So, what my school does is they get someone to cover my room during the test so that I can at least go from room to room during the test. It gets a little tiring running around, but it is well worth it. My kids need to know that I am there for them and I know they feel much comfortable when I am in the room. It stinks that I am not there with them through the whole test, but it is better than not seeing them at all.


Melissa S.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Currently, I am preparing my third grade class for the NJASK Test, which begins on the first week of May. My grade level partners and I have already begun to count down the weeks left until the "big test." As a result of recognizing the minimal amount of time that's left, we have started to change the layout of our daily lesson plans so that we are able to present as many topics as possible before the test. At the very least, we want our students to be familiar and recognize the content in the subjects: Math, Reading, and Writing. However, teaching all areas before the NJASK can become quite stressful. As Ms. WolpertGawron mentioned, the standardized tests can create unnecessary panic and mayhem in the classroom. Students perform better when they are calm and relaxed, not stressed and overwhelmed. Therefore, it is important to keep the classroom atmosphere relaxed, even though covering numerous concepts might be haunting you in your sleep. I am glad that some of the other test prep strategies were mentioned in this blog. Sometimes teachers leave these details to review several minutes before the test. However, many of the skills such as how to fill in a bubble and understanding the language of the test are just as important as the test questions. Continuously, reassuring students that they will do GREAT was always one way in which I tried to give my students that extra needed boost of confidence before the test. However, I love the Golden Lines that were provided in this blog. What a great way to provide encouragement to each student! Thank you for some of the obvious and not so obvious suggestions for the all important standardized test.

Ashley's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I too feel the pressure of standardized testing. I however quickly realized how to help my students become better test takers as well as more knowledgeable on material that will be tested by the state of Maryland. Having taught nearly 70 students last year, I only had 4 students be unsuccessful on our state test that is required for graduation and none were terribly far from a passing score.

I help my students be prepared by exposing them to released test items, format my unit exams like the state exam, and review prior to the state exam. During my review I review only the information that falls within the testing limits and leave out the extention material that I included in regular instruction. Students really benefit from all of the strategies I use to help them succeed. I am also fortunate enough that my state has set up a website that students can access and take practice tests as well as preview questions at home in preparation.

Marcy T's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi, I like that you wanted to be there for all of your students. I wondered how your students reacted to seeing you in the room. Did they stop working when you walked in? Did they try to speak to you? How did they feel when you had to leave the room? I understand that you wanted to be with all of your students, but did your entering all those rooms break thier concentration?

I am a test coordinator in my county. During testing, I try really hard not to have anyone enter a testing room during the testing sessions. In order to make our students comfortable with their testing locations, we do practice tests throughout the year. As much as possible the students stay in the same testing groups so that the students are comfortable with the examiner and the students in the room. I also try to allow the students to test with teachers they are comfortable with. Any teacher that doesn't have good classroom management, or doesn't promote a positive testing environment, isnt' allowed to test my students. They can be a hall monitor or something. Maybe you can talk to your test coordinator to try this in your building. Then maybe you won't have to spread yourself so thin.


Laura S's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

So nice to hear the advice of encouraging the children before the state test. The truth of the matter is at that point they really do need strategies and encouragement, because you can't teach them a year worth of content in one or two weeks. The idea of students encouraging each other makes a lot more sense than the encouragement extending solely from the teacher. Brilliant. Really, this is the kind of environment that every teacher tries to obtain. Thanks for sharing.

I do highly recommend spending review sessions playing games with the kids. Any activity can be turned into a fun game. I would encourage all teachers to tap their creativity and make it fun. Fred Jones has a lot of great ideas for playing games in his PAT bank on his website, fredjones.com.


Heather Rosecrans's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thank you so much for this post. Every year I struggle with making my students feel comfortable and confident at test time. Our state test is in two weeks, and these tips will definitely help me build the confidence of my students.

Tonina 's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I too can agree that testing is overwhelming. Children no matter who they are can feel pressure and become very scared when presented with a test. I like to tell students who take a test that it is not a test, it is a homework assignment to see how much they remember from class and from the readings. I have noticed everytime I give a test the scored are lower than a majority of the quizes. I also like open book tests. I kow you may ask why, It is because it makes the students find the answer. In life, I can sure everyone agrees, that we are must find the correct answer to any situation. It does not come from a book that we memorize, it comes from locating the answer on our own. I would like to see how many of you agree with me on this. What would you prefer?

Heather WolpertGawron's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think there is definitely a place for open book tests. I agree that finding information is a skill unto itself and should be assessed. I think that different ways to test are yet another form of differentiation. Try to experiment as well with student choice in testing format. It isn't what should happen with every assessment, but you will really be pleased with the results of their content knowledge when students are given the choice of the format of their own assessment. Students know what it's like to show off, and they want to do it. Give them the opportunity in a way that best suits them, and you'll find that they are more willing to translate those skills into even the standardized format. Thanks for your comment!
-Heather WG

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