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Test Prep Doesn't Have to Be Overwhelming

Related Tags: Assessment, 9-12 High School
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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

Amy Lowyns  Williston FL's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am glad someone has finallly written all of this down. I teach 11th graders that were unable to pass the 10th grade test. I do all of the above and it works wonders. It isn't about the "magic pill" that motivates students, it is usually the teacher just believeing that they can do it. For so long these students have heard from everyone, including themselves, that they can't do it, sometimes they forget that they can. Thank you Heather for putting it in writing. No one should have to stop what they are teaching to teach a test. Unfortunately, many people believe it is the only way. Keep doing what you are doing.

Adrianoria's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have never heard of these theory before. I actually fully agree with this, noticing with what you are saying. I made those same mistakes when I was in school while taking the Practice FCAT which by the way I was the first Required graduating class to have to pass the test to graduate. These are actually great ideas that can be used to help the students in the future and knowing what they answer so you know what to teach the students before the actual test.

Pamela Bryan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

You are exactly right. This is my second year teaching and it has already become apparent to me that the time spent trying to get the students to recall content would be much better spent encouraging them with understanding on HOW to take these tests. Thank you for the words of wisdom to a "new" teacher.

Heather's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thanks for the comment. Just remember that using the data formatively, to guide your lessons is the key. Model ownership of what works and what doesn't so that your students will too. Thanks so much for your thoughts and check back in with Edutopia for more advice.

Heather's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thanks for the kind words. Hey, we're all working hard to find what works and I find that some of teaching is also cheerleading. It's our job to not only prepare them, but to strengthen their resolve. Confidence works. Laughter works. Why spend our days in an unhappy room, when you could be surrounded by students that WANT to work hard for you? Take care and thanks for the comments.

James Klock's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Great comments-- I'm putting together a strategies guide for the high school where I teach, and I just want to echo a lot of what you've suggested.

One strategy I teach kids, which isn't listed here, is to perform "triage" on the problems, identifying which are straightforward, which are difficulty, and which are VERY difficult. This helps students keep pace with the timed test, by focusing the bulk of their time on the merely difficult questions, and not "wasting" time on questions that are really out of reach.

As I routinely say, "1 kid in a thousand gets 100% on the ACT, and 50% right is a pretty good score. There's no shame in admitting that there are things you don't know, yet."

Heather's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I love the thought of "triage." It sounds very metacognitive, as is any form of reflective categorization. For the matter, teaching them the standards and having them categorize the questions is definitely a high-level thinking form of activity. Remind those kids that we're all students, always learning and they'll be more shrugs and less shame in not knowing an answer. I wanna see that strategy guide when you're done!

Thanks for the comment.

Heather's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

We never stop being "new," so get used to it. It's either new strategies, new theories, a new school, administrators, students, you name it. Keep your eyes open for what works. If you're a good teacher, you'll never stop being a good learner too. Thanks for checking out the post. Check back for more!

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