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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

Laurie Wasserman's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

In Massachusetts we're in "MCAS Mode"; our state's standardized test which is coming up in two weeks. Our principal is having an "MCAS Kick-off" for the kids, but I thought he could have one for the teachers as well; so I've sent him a link to your excellent article.

Marsha Ratzel's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

We have just completed our testing season. I think I've learned how to be a better test prep teacher for my kids over the years. And I completely agree with your assessment that you have to own your formative data...and empower your students to own their formative data.

It seems that when my kids have become astute in understanding what they know and what they don't know....and when they know "Oh, this is that kind of question"....they are much better at performing on these standardized tests. The inclusion of some technology this time around (we just got clickers for the first time) has made a huge difference. Probably because the feedback on the formatives is so immediate. Studnets know within seconds if they got the correct or incorrect answers to formative questions....and I can reinstruct the errors on the spot.

That ability has made a HUGE difference. Plus the introduction of technology is always motivating all on its own. I also love the fact that the software makes all of this relatively painless for me, as the teacher, to use it in many forms and formats. From games, to writing questions on the fly, to importing them from other software...there are so many more possibilities than when I was just using paper/pencil or whiteboard slates.

I think it's also vital to sort/sift through kids. When I am able to team teacher prep sessions, we siphon off the kids who get a particular set of questions. They go with the other teacher into another room while I am able to work with a smaller and smaller group of students who are still struggling. Talk about flexible grouping. The grouping changes minute by minute within each test prep session....no one has to be stuck in any group longer than it takes them to demonstrate they can correctly answer the question. Then they're off to a different activity.

I think math is an ideal place to work in this matter....and its effectiveness is amazing.

Rachel Miller's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Awesome Read!

After just completing our state assessments, I feel overwhelmed by the process. As a teacher, you tend to put all the pressure on yourself and not the students. I was confident in their ability to pass and did not let them see the anxiety I had within.

In preparation, I focused most of my effort in teaching them how to read the questions and understand what was needing to be solved. There were many at-risk students in the class and the directions were the biggest obstacle. I love how you explain the intense vocabulary students need to know. I also made sure that they read all of the answers, because often times at least 2 of the choices made no sense.

The students ended up performing well on the tests, as expected for at-risk students. Our goal was a bit less, but they knew that they had not been exposed to part of the concepts on the test being behind in classes.

Leslie Locklear's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Marsha, I see where this could be beneficial, but what if don't have a teacher to team with. I teac 7th grade math and I am the only math teacher. Who would I team with? Are you teaming with another math teacher or a teacher from another subject area? I'm looking for strategies to improve testing and motivation. I like you strategy.

Misty 's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Great article! I loved your ideas of having your students write a "Golden Line" for their peers. I had fifth grade students come to my fourth grade class and give a short presentation on tips for the WASL (Washington State's standardized test). Not academic type tips, but more along the lines of strategies, eating a healthy breakfast, breathing techniques, etc. The fifth graders also decorated pencils with words of encouragement. My students loved this!

I think it's also valuable to realize that test prep isn't merely what's done a few weeks before. This is an ongoing process that starts early. Let's just not forget spontaneity it teaching, however. Learning itself is what's important! Once again, great job on the article!

Lisa's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I loved the blog! It was realistic. We cannot deny that the tests exist, and these kids have to pass them. I try to teach strategies too, such as using the language, etc. I will try the practice bubbling trick. I agree with continual praise and high encouragement. It keeps testing from being scary and keeps the kids from feeling anxious. I also do stretches and a little meditation with the kids each moring before we test...helps ease the pressure.

Maureen Zollos's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

We are also in the midst of preparing for our state standardized testing. In a few weeks we will be taking the third grade OAT, or Ohio Achievement Test. I, too have been trying to instill test taking stratgies in my students all year. We are fortunate to have a reading program that incorporates practice achievement tests as part of the curriculum. Every Friday, my students have a cold read and they are supposed to incorporate the skills learned throughout the week into this test. The skill include finding the main idea, summarizing, compare and contrast, author's purpose, etc. It has been a great tool in preparing them for "The Big One" in April and I don't have to stop my everyday curriculum.

We practice bubbling, figuring out what is being asked in the question, making sure we answer ALL parts of the question, answering in complete sentences, using graphs or charts to help answer the question, eliminate wrong answers, and proving to ourselves that we got the right answer by going back in the passage and underlining the answer in the passage.

In the upcoming weeks, I will try to remember to be positive and encouraging. Thanks for the reminder!

Patricia's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Lots of great ideas out there! We are getting ready to focus on test prep when we return from spring break so I appreciate all the great ideas. I also teach test vocabulary throughout the year, so by the time testing comes, the wording on the test will be natural for students. My school started data chats with all students from 2nd - 12th grades last year. Teachers sit down with each student about a month before testing and look over their test scores from previous years and note their progress or lack of it. Last year our scores improved greatly and we think these data chats played a part. The students make goals as to how to improve their scores and I think it really helps because students buy ownership in the testing process. The chats are informal so as not to add stress. I also like the idea of the "Golden Line" and the pencils decorated with encouraging words. I think it is so important for the teacher to not stress and incorporate testing as a normal yearly activity! I think it is here to stay! Thanks for the great tips!

Jennifer's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I completely agree with your thoughts! I am a firm believer that test-taking strategies are what we should teach before the test. Whenever someone asks what I am doing to prepare my students for the state tests, I like to reply, "Teaching." The children will not be able to answer the questions at all if they are not taught the material. So, I agree! I think we keep on teaching and then teach students how to take a test.

Heather WolpertGawron's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

...integrate these strategies throughout the year so that curriculum doesn't halt and stress begins during test-taking season. Prepping for bubble test is only the tag-wagging-the-dog kind of problem. Imagine when we really decide to tackle the issue of tests that assess critical thinking! Ah, there's the challenge - to design tests that assess what we really are teaching.
Thanks for the comment.
-Heather WG

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