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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)

I love this term! I may have written the article, but I learn as much from the comments as you may have learned from the post. Thanks for the great nomenclature!
-Heather WG

Heather WolpertGawron's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I love this idea of articulating from 5th to 4th with encouraging words and advice. I do this with my 7th graders to the 6th graders at the end of the year. They write a final, persuasive essay letter convincing a 6th grader (I pass out names to personalize the letters) not to be fearful for various reasons. Then the 6th graders write narratives back and the 7th graders so a literary analysis on them. It's that last, don't let the summer leak out the info, unit of writing that helps just a little with some school community too. Thanks for the comment!
-Heather WG

Heather WolpertGawron's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

You may want to check out www.interactivewhiteboardrevolution.ning.com for other suggestions on how to use the clickers and boards. It's a pretty good resource for a new VLC. Thanks for the comment, and it sounds like you've got great things going on at your site.
-Heather WG

Marcie Lane's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach gifted 7th and 8th graders Language Arts, and they are often nervous and worried about standardized testing. I loved your article. I agree completely, and I love the summation at the end--"you're ready." That goes a long way. Students need to feel confident. I often go back and share with them their scores of the past. This helps them feel assured that they can be successful again.--Marcie Lane

Marcie Lane's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Heather, I love your idea about writing to another grade level with words of wisdom. I'm going to try that!!! Thanks--Marcie Lane

Beth Green's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I know that other states have the testing process. It was nice to hear from so many others that are feeling the strain of testing. Not only on the students but on the teacher as well. The information was greatly and well recieved. My students only have three week before the new 3rd grade test. This was my first blog and this was delightful.

Rachel Miller's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


Heather I tried checking out this site I saw you suggest to Marsha and it was not found. Recently, I added an interactive whiteboard to my classroom and would love to find resources to take advantage of its' great uses.


Megan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I loved what you had to say in your article. As standardized tests are approaching for my students, I love any new strategies or tips I can give to them. I have already been giving them test prep questions and trying to help them learn the language of the test. I try to instill confidence in my students but at least at the high school level, a lot of them do not see the point in the test. I try to talk them up as much as I can and I hope I will have prepared them to be successful by the time the tests roll around. After all is said and done, I will leave them with "You're ready".

Megan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I could not agree with your more Marcie. I think it is a great idea to show students their scores from the past and to continue to instill confidence in them.

Megan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Amy, you are completely right. Students do need to feel confidence not only in themselves but teachers need to encourage them and let them know that they are capable of mastering these tests. Keep doing what you are doing!

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