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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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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."

Comments (58)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Heather WolpertGawron's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Glad you liked it and congrats on commenting. Check back again!
-Heather WG

Susan Harden's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

You have spoken to an issue that is of great concern to me. I suspect that we sometimes undermine the students' likelihood of scoring well on the "real" test by desensitizing them with SO MANY practice tests. In the school at which I substitute the students have been baraged with practice tests for weeks on end. They no longer take the tests very seriously, and are increasingly difficult to "keep quiet" as is expected. Does anyone know of research to support the idea that extensive practice testing can actually do more harm than good?

Lori P's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have to commend the authors of those fabulous "Golden Lines", I am actually tempted to adopt some as classroom mottos. Thanks for the tips. I am blogging for the first time as a class assignment but have to admit I found some great advice here and plan to be back! THANK YOU!

Stephanie 's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

a few weeks before the test we all scramble to prepare the practice tests for the students to take. For the past 12 years, we've always set aside two weeks for the students to practice for the SAT10. We have our students practice bubbling in their answers, we teach them some strategies to answering the questions and so forth. At the school where I teach, we usually test a different grade level. I'm a 1st grade teacher and, last school year, I tested 3rd grade. I don't agree with this because I feel like our students get even more nervous if an unfamiliar face is the one administering the test. (But, the test coordinators work it out that way.) They are nervous enough just taking the test, this just adds to their stress. How do I relieve some of the stress this might cause them?

Heather WolpertGawron's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Congrats on your first blogged comment. Watch out, it's addictive to find online collaborators out there-it's like professional pen pals. Use the mottos and make sure that the kids know kids made them. (Incidentally, these were the cleaner of the mottos. The kids feel just as passionately about these tests and doing well as we do for them.) Good luck and thanks for checking in!
-Heather WG

Heather WolpertGawron's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Kids should be testing with teachers they know. This was a battle our staff chose a couple of years ago, but it is a legitimate scheduling thing. I'd also love to know how other schools do this. Thanks for the comment!
-Heather WG

Bethany D's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Anyone know where we can find some practice bubbling worksheets? I believe I had them last year, but I can no longer locate them.

Gail Breidenstein's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Here is what my school uses to help practice for the SAT 10. They are a little pricey but totally worth the money, my AP actually quit purchasing the other practice books that we hated and bought these instead. They are set up just like the SAT 10, so the kids know the format and aren't surprised on testing day. I used them the past 2 years and have really seen an improvement on our test scores. I hope this helps for you!!
http://www.mariinc.com/testsat10.html?gclid=CL2_9bHSy5kCFQIfswod1E7Lsw

Robert Bledsoe's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree. Our school system has completly taken on teaching our students how to take a test. All of the test and lessons are designed in the format of our state's standardized test. Every reading, language, and math assessment is in a bubble format and includes a writing piece that essentially ask them the same type of questions they'll eventaully see at the end of the school year. While my principal does not apply as much pressure as others in our system, we still meet once a month to figure out why some students are not doing well and and to explain how we plan to turn thier progress around. The whole process takes the fun out of teaching for the students and the teacher. I think that some prior expereince is needed, but I often find that the importance has worn off by the time their performace is measured. I would also be interested in finding out whether over exposure is harmful.

Matt Johnson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thank you, Ms. Wolpert-Gawron, for your ideas on preparing our students for the rigors of standardized testing. This is my first-ever blogging experience. For developing their testing vocabulary, our school has a list of 50 academic vocabulary words (analyze, affect, infer, predict...) that we begin exposing the students to at the start of the year. We make it a habit to use the vocab. words in our daily instruction so the students hear how the words are used in a meaningful context. The words are taken from Coxhead's widely-used Academic Word List (2000), which you can find at http://www.uefap.com/vocab/select/awl.htm Because academic vocabulary is a part of daily instruction, by testing time the students will be more prepared to read and understand the language of testing.

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