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Leveling the Playing Field: How to Make Standardized Test Preparation Accessible to All Students

Andrea Alexander

Former attorney and a current graduate student at the University of MI
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Andrea has been teaching, tutoring, and writing content for standardized test preparation for almost ten years, most recently for the online test prep company Grockit, which focuses on making standardized test preparation affordable and accessible for students around the world.

One of the great frustrations of being an educator is standardized testing. Because it is used to evaluate both students and teachers, it can be an important part of the educational experience. Teachers generally don't like to "teach to the test," however, and some standardized tests like the SAT test material that doesn't always come up organically in the classroom.

A further problem posed by standardized testing is that outside preparation courses can be prohibitively expensive, and aren't even available in all areas. This can leave teachers in rural or less affluent regions feeling that their students are at a disadvantage. So what can you do to level the playing field and help your students be prepared for standardized tests without devoting too much classroom time and too many resources to that end?

Strategy 1: Encourage Predictive Reading Habits

As a veteran test-prep instructor, I can say with confidence that one of the most difficult areas for students to see real improvement in during a typical eight- to twelve-session prep course is reading. That's because reading habits are formed over many years, and generally can't be changed significantly in mere weeks.

In the classroom, you can help instill the kinds of reading habits that will help students on standardized tests by emphasizing passages of approximately the same length as those used on tests (these vary, but 600-800 words is a safe estimate) and helping students develop predictive reading habits like articulating a passage's main idea, tone, structure, and purpose. These are issues that commonly arise in the questions accompanying a passage, and most standardized test prep curriculum encourages students to think about them after reading the passage but before approaching the questions.

Even a routine reading assignment that isn't accompanied by questions can lend itself to this kind of thinking, and you'll be giving your students the groundwork for success on reading comprehension sections without them even noticing.

Strategy 2: Build Good Vocabularies

Like reading, this is something that can be worked into your lessons unobtrusively. Helping your students build a better vocabulary will benefit them on standardized tests and in many other areas of their lives. Encourage students to write down unfamiliar words and look them up; address tough words yourself by analyzing roots, prefixes, and suffixes. And don't just leave this task for language arts teachers. Everyone -- including science, math, even physical education teachers -- can help students develop the kind of vocabulary that will make them better test-takers.


Strategy 3: Take Advantage of All the Resources Offered by the Internet

Test preparation, like many other things, has become widely available on the Internet. Most online courses are less expensive than live ones, and have the advantage of being available anywhere with Internet access. These resources include practice questions and explanations, video lessons, and how-to guides. There are many companies offering these kinds of study aids, including two of the largest in the business, Kaplan and the Princeton Review, and other more inexpensive options, such as Grockit.

Although offerings vary from one company to the next, features that your students should look for include opportunities for online interaction with teachers and other students, customizable sets of practice questions, and diagnostic feedback that allows for tailored study plans. Some companies also make limited resources available for free, or grant full access for a trial period. These online resources, and others like them, can be extremely helpful for students whose test preparation might otherwise be limited to the books available in the school library, and the price is within reach for many families; although the costs vary from one company to the next, online courses or memberships generally cost from 100 to 300 dollars.

By adding a few simple approaches into their lesson plans and exploring developments in online standardized test prep, such as practice questions, video tutorials, and forums, teachers can integrate the skills that help students add points to their scores into the classroom and make test preparation attainable for any student with an internet connection. Students should not be denied the opportunity to maximize their test score because of their location or financial situation, and as teachers, we have the chance to help level the playing field.

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Andrea Alexander

Former attorney and a current graduate student at the University of MI

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Linda's picture
Assistant Professor of Education, University of Pikeville

These are all excellent and vital skills students need to succeed as life-long learners, not just on a test. In addition, if we don't test what we want them to learn, aren't we just wasting everyone's time? So, in essence, we are "teaching to the test" because we are testing what we teach...which is what we want students to learn. I think test creators have a really important task.....determining what skills students should know to be productive citizens and life-long learners.

Susie Watts's picture

I think your suggestions are very useful and could make test preparation easier for high school students, in particular. The only additional one I would suggest is to introduce students to the free booklets put out by the College Board for the SAT and the ACT booklet that should be in every counseling office. These are as close to the real tests as you can get. The more students understand these tests, get some practice on actual questions, and learn how to pace themselves, the better they will do on these two important tests or any others for that matter.

College Direction

Susan Graham's picture
Susan Graham
educational researcher, curriculum developer, and all around education gal

While Kaplan and College Board are long time players, the 2011 CODiE Award in the --Best Student Assessment Solution category was a new comapany called AcademicMerit. They won for Assessments21(r) and Literary Companion(r), its suite of online tools that seamlessly links learning, instruction and assessment for middle and high school English Language Arts.

The recognition occurred during a special awards reception and dinner at the Software & Information Industry Association's (SIIA) annual Ed Tech Industry Summit in San Francisco. The result caused a small stir among attendees, because the products from relative newcomer beat out those from three larger and more established companies--McGraw-Hill, Promethean, and Scantron--for the honor.

What makes this company unique is that they tie into commonly taught pieces of literature, offer formative and summative assessments-- and assess WRITING as well as reading & vocabulary. It's a great tool. I know teachers in Maine, NJ, and elsewhere who LOVE it.

ntcook's picture

I like all the three strategies suggested here, but as a future teacher for English Language Learners (ELLs), I would like to add to Strategy 3: vocabularies, and emphasize the importance of good vocabularies.

ELLs, who speak in different language/s at home, have limited access to the English Language. For them, getting sufficient instruction of the English Language at school is crucial for social and academic success since they might not get any language assistance at home. According to Jim Cummins, there are two kinds of English for ELLs to master; Basic Interpersonal Communicative Skills (BICS), and Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP). The language tested on standardized exams is CALP. It is CALP that helps ELLs succeed in school. Of course, English as Second Language (ESL) certified teachers assist the students to acquire both levels of English as much as possible, but I agree with Andrea that all teachers can help build better vocabularies. If all the content-area teachers created lesson plans that paid attention to the vocabulary, ELLs would greatly benefit from them. Some specific vocabularies used on those standardized exams might not be commonly used in some English-speaking households, so I would like to emphasize that anyone can learn new vocabularies from language-sensitive instructions. ELLs are at great disadvantage due to the lack in English proficiency, but vocabularies can be taught and learned. With vast vocabularies, ELLs can be on the same 'playing field' with their English-speaking peers and they can have equal access to education including preparing for exams. I hope that more teachers recognize they can teach both content and the language especially when they have ELLs in the classroom.

Ms. M's picture
Ms. M
High School Spanish Teacher MN

Summative assessment preparation (formative assessment) is so vital to student success on these high stakes tests. It's interesting that as we consider ideas such as backward planning and curriculum mapping, are students are expected to take these tests that we often do not know much about. It can often seem like an impossible task to know which type of reading the students will be asked to do or which vocabulary we should choose for them to study. As advised above, we are left to search the internet for "ideas" that might be helpful in these summative exams. Shouldn't there be more test preparation tools that are accessible and affordable to schools that are taking these tests? In creating our own classroom assessments, we have to take into consideration these basic questions: Where am I going? Where am I now? How do I get where I am going? How will I know when I get there? Am I on the right track for getting there? With regard to state testing, it seems the answers to these questions are up in the air. How can we assure that we arrive at our destination if we don't really know where we're going? Am I ill-advised as to the availability of this information? Are the answers to these questions out there?

Heidi's picture
Curriculum Development

I agree that we need to help our students recognize available resources to help "level the playing field" with regards to standardize testing. I particularly appreciated the suggestion to help students build their vocabulary, specifically learning the meaning of prefixes and suffixes. Ironically, just yesterday I wrote a couple blog posts about common prefixes and suffixes that might be of interest to teachers who have this objective:

Thanks for this article!

Nathan's picture describes and has links to a broad range of available test preparation websites and study and revision tools. The types of materials and pricing models certainly vary as Andrea points out, but there is likely to be something for everyone.

Monique's picture
Fourth grade teacher from Atlanta, Georgia

First, let me thank you for the strategies that you proveded above and also thanks to everyone who commented after with additional sites and suggestions. I am working at a small school that made AYP (adequate yearly progress) its first year open. This year, we want to continue this trend. Being a small school, we do not have the resources that are available to more establihed schools in the district nor the staff expertise that would be present at a larger school. I am a new teacher trying to keep testing in perspective, but that is difficult when the news reminds us every day of the importance of testing integrity and expectations due to the recent problems of a neighboring district.

My fellow teachers and I were trying to determine how to help our students master subjects that they will need for the test, as opposed to teaching to the test or simply following the curriculum map given and hoping for the best. I am going to share these strategies with them and also suggest that we concentrate on enriching our students learning experiences as a means to ensure they are mastering test elements in the process.

Matt M's picture
Matt M
West Fargo

I enjoyed the blog on Leveling the Playing Field: How to Make Standardized Test Preparation Accessible to All students. The two main points that I took from the article are encouraging predictive reading habits and building good vocabularies. While I teach social studies classes such as geography and U.S. Government to ELL students, I really try to encourage and build not only good reading habits but build academic vocabulary as well. However, when it comes to most standardized testing most ELL students will struggle. The biggest flaw that I see is that ELL students need extra time to catch up with American students. Unfortunately, I don't see many ELL students reading outside of the classroom. One reason for this is because many ELL students have to work to provide income for their families. When it comes to ACT prep, the same problem exists. While many American students can spend that extra time after school or on Saturday's prepping for this test, ELL students are working. That's also why I like strategy three which encourages students to practice using the internet. This way students can do test prepping when they have time.

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