George Lucas Educational Foundation

Effective Strategies for Math Teachers During Testing Season

A slow and considered approach to math instruction helps students comprehend what they need to know when they take a standardized test.

May 15, 2023
Sneksy / iStock

For many teachers, state testing season has started, has ended, or will start soon. As a mathematical content lead person on the instructional leadership team and mentor teacher, I’ve tried to find ways for teachers to still bring joy and a genuine understanding of math concepts during the testing period. 

Especially for those working in urban and rural environments, I want the culture to change from a “pedagogy of poverty” (e.g., ritualistic practices that lean heavily toward giving information and controlling behavior to produce outcomes) to a more humanizing and sense-making one. Unfortunately, teachers under pressure to raise test scores may miss ample opportunities for deeper learning in the process. In these cases, it’s all about just passing a test instead of learning mathematics according to mathematical practice standards.

High Scores Don’t Necessarily Reflect Deep Knowledge

I’ve experienced many situations with colleagues where students score “proficient/advanced” on an assessment one year and then show a lack of understanding of deeper mathematical concepts the following year. High test scores can sometimes tempt us to think that students truly understand the standards—but it’s really only for that moment.

Sometimes, opportunities are missed to see tests as one part of an educational journey to mastering the content. Organizations like the National Education Association have prioritized performance-based assessments that allow student choice in how they demonstrate their learning throughout the year, as opposed to standardized tests that don’t accurately depict learning and growth.

Wherever you find yourself concerning standardized testing, it’s an unavoidable reality for many teachers. However, until better options present themselves on a federal and state level, I have some ideas on how to approach the testing season that lift student engagement and lead to a fundamental understanding of math concepts.

3 Ways to Slow Down The Process

1. Avoid hitting multiple standards quickly. Quick test preparation without conceptual understanding harms learning. “Drill and kill” focuses on speed, not strategies and connections to standards. Slowing down benefits students’ comprehension. In addition, for students who are on the edge of understanding, it’s helpful if you slow down based on your observations of student work as you circulate the room.

2. Encourage students to lead the learning process and review sessions. Focus on standards that need more refreshing or clarification. Ideally, we can encourage students to showcase what they know through productive struggle to inform us on what we should do next. Have students be the tutors and math coaches in the room, and decentralize yourself as the only person with knowledge. 

3. Realize that only some students need to work on specific question types, compared with others. Based on your data, informed intuition, and expertise, utilizing small groups and student interviews provides a good opportunity for you to slow down and hear students’ discussions so that you can determine if they understand a math topic. This helps you intentionally focus on what needs attention, based on their responses. While others are in small groups, enrichment with rigorous and engaging standards-aligned tools, like Zearn or Prodigy, can prepare students to move on or revisit other standards.

Support Student Sense Making

It’s helpful to remember that we should support students as sense makers and not test takers. According to Michael Battista in Reasoning and Sense Making in the Mathematics Classroom: Grades 6–8, “Genuine sense making makes mathematical ideas ’feel’ clear, logical, valid, or obvious.” 

Let’s say you’re working on a common core standard, 4.NBT.1 (Number of Operations, Base Ten). Manipulatives, place-value charts, and student discussion would all support sense making. Students should see how test makers may ask about place value, but focusing only on the test questions isn’t helpful. If a student keeps struggling with problems like “How many times greater is the value of 5 in 2,573 than the value of 5 in 6,459?” then the issue is likely not that they don’t receive enough test questions to practice, but that they lack the sense making of what it means for a digit to be 10 times greater than another digit on the right.

Encourage Student Confidence

Building confidence is key to lowering test anxiety, which is sometimes hard to avoid during testing season. Setting students up for success after tests is the goal so that they can be confident and competent about the math they’ll do in the next grade. 

My former math coach shared a resource with me to make elementary math test prep more fun and less rigid without blitzing through questions. These activities  can also be adapted to be more equity-focused and accessible for students with diverse needs. This is one way to rethink test prep and position students competently in a more humanizing, fun, and insightful way about what students know or don’t know.

The Edutopia article “Why Students Forget—and What You Can Do About It” has helped me tremendously with this work. It’s essential to understand that students, like us, naturally forget. Memory can be challenging, even if something is taught well in your math classroom. Some research-based strategies, like the spacing effect, revisit key math concepts throughout the school year. Students can review and master content over time and make connections to previous lessons rather than being pressured to master a standard within a few days.

Don’t Stop Teaching 

A colleague of mine shared an important point: “You don’t fatten the pig by weighing it.” You can assess, assess, and assess without moving the math needle at all for your students. 

Practice tests, exit tickets, and quizzes can help prepare students for year-end assessments and evaluate teaching methods. They should be low-stakes and ungraded for informative purposes concerning next steps. It was easier for me to provide practice tests on days when my principal assigned review or flex days. However, excessive testing takes away from instruction, which is sometimes aided by school districts.

Prioritize quality teaching over daily practice tests. I used a data recording sheet to make notes and look for trends in student work to know how to proceed the next day for spiral reviews in my “Do Nows,” small groups, or computer enrichment programs. In an ideal world, state testing data would come back promptly to inform teachers of student progress rather than the next year, when the students were no longer in our care.

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  • 3-5 Upper Elementary
  • 6-8 Middle School

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