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The Importance of Play in Preparing for Standardized Testing

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Standardized tests can be a wonderful teaching tool to enrich and deepen classroom learning.

What?! The prevailing wisdom states that standardized testing drains the life out of a classroom and saps students of interest and engagement, brings on unnecessary and at times crippling stress, and limits the view of what students are really learning in school.

Teaching to the test is a problem, for sure. But using the format of a standardized test as a teaching tool can be a boon to student learning. The question is how to do this successfully and in a way that captivates student interest.

Here are a few ways to use the format of standardized tests as a strategy to promote student engagement:

Play with Question Stems

Have students create the answer responses to a question stem, thinking carefully about "wrong" answers and finding the right language to construct the "correct" response. This is a highly analytical exercise and challenges students to really know and understand the concept being addressed in the question.

Flip the Question

Have students construct the question based on the answer responses. This forces students to identify the patterns and themes evident in the answer responses and thus arrive at the big idea in the question.

A "No-Stakes" Review

At the end of a class in a particular subject area, have students answer one multiple-choice, standardized test type of question to see if they grasped an idea covered in class. This is a good dipstick exercise to garner immediate feedback. Time columnist Annie Murphy Paul shares the example of Columbia Middle School in St. Louis, Missouri, where teachers have students take a quick, "no-stakes" quiz at the end of each class to see what they learned.

The Quiz Show Format

Play "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" with multiple-choice questions. The popular '90s TV show invited participants to answer a series of questions, sometimes enlisting the help of peers through the "Call a Friend" option, in which the participant could call a friendly source of information. The show also employed the "50/50" option, where two incorrect responses were eliminated from the answer list so that the participant could choose between the last two options. Teachers can break the class into teams to play this game. In a more modern version, the "Call a Friend" option could give students one minute to Google the answer, forcing them to use intelligent search language to find the "right" answer. Students could also text a friend to get extra help.

The Build Your Own Test

Give the class a mixed up practice test, with the questions scrambled and in no apparent order of difficulty. Have teams of students re-order the questions, moving from easiest to hardest, being prepared to explain and defend why a certain question was easy or difficult. This also invites the important conversation to consider that, when taking a standardized test, all questions are actually equal, with no single question having more value. Many students get hung up on the "hard" question and spend too much time on that one instead of moving through the test to answer the most questions correctly.

Dispute the Question

Have students debate the merits of the wording of a particular question to find flaws, bias or shortcomings and then rewrite the question with more careful wording.

Building experiences for students to "play" with a test can help to defuse anxiety, create familiarity and comfort, offer concrete strategies for success, promote collaboration and problem solving, and open up important conversations around taking standardized tests.

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Comments (8) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Stacy Schwab's picture

We play lots of review games like Who Wants to be a Millionaire and Jeopardy already, but I love your suggestions for flipping the questions and playing with the question stems. I have two weeks of test prep time left. I will definitely be using both of those strategies. I have a couple posts on my blog regarding maintaining student motivation as state testing approaches. You can check them out at Thanks for the great suggestions, Stacy

Marykate Campbell's picture
Marykate Campbell
Third Grade Teacher from Manahawkin, New Jersey

I loved all of your ideas! As a third grade teacher, I am feeling pressure with the state standardized testing quickly approaching! I know that I have taught to the common core standards, so I am not worried about the content of the test. I am, however, concerned about my students' lack of knowledge with how the test is set up. It will be their first time taking a test as lengthy as this, with questions that are at times made to trick them with distractors! I believe that this "game-like" approach t will be exactly what my class needs to feel confident and ready! After all, who ever said that test prep can't be fun? Thanks for sharing!

Jen Evans's picture
Jen Evans
3rd Grade Teacher form Philadelphia, PA

I really enjoyed reading your ideas. I'm a 3rd grade teacher and this is the first year my class will be taking the PSSA's in PA. I do lots of Jeopardy and Who Wants to be a Millionaire games. I will also split the class into two groups. One person from each group moves to the middle of the class. I read a question and the person who answers first stays in the game. They other player sits down. I like your idea of flipping the questions and building their own test. This is something I will be trying in my classroom this week. Thanks for the great ideas!

LesleyBeth's picture
Creator of Jazzles ELA - Arts Integrated ELA meeting UNESCO criteria

Act out being TV reporters and news or weather anchors. My system focuses on developing rich vocabulary with knowledge. It is based on systematic introduction of letters based on watching / singing along to animated reading songs. Each animation has a theme -.e.g fishing with friends and your father. This gives the context to Google for topic knowledge - then kids divide into groups to develop the TV interview. TV interviews are something they experience daily on TV. - so gives them confidence they can do it! You can video the students and play it back. Kids and parents love it! Really builds confidence. I'm going to try some of the TV game ideas above and see how they work. What all of these ideas do is develop vocabulary in contextual knowledge - the foundation for reading - that few schools do well.

Paolo's picture

Great ideas! I can also suggest this new free tool for on-line assessments that can be used with your students, at It's very good to create your own quizzes and assessments.

Chelsea's picture

I really loved you ideas for engaging students during standardized testing practice. Currently my state has now adopted the PARCC test and our district is in a tizzy on how to get our students prepared. These techniques are great ways to support the methods our students need to learn for the test but also disguise the actual idea of "practicing". In particular I really like the "Build Your Own Test" strategy. This allows for the students to select what questions they feel they can answer but also allows you as the teacher to have various forms of formative and summative assessments.
I also feel that as teachers we play a huge role in how our students approach these types of standardized tests. If we treat these tests as a so called "disease" entering our classroom then our students are not going to have a positive outlook when taking the test. In return this creates negativity amongst the students about the test and does not boost their confidence. We need to use our jobs as educators to promote these test and build our students up and prepare them the best that we can! We should make the students feel as though this is the Super Bowl of school!

Hillary Hill's picture
Hillary Hill
Social Media Marketing Associate at Edutopia

I would have loved this as a student. Some great ways to make test-prep fun - no easy feat. Thanks for this!

Eric Blaise's picture

This would have made learning quite easy and enjoyable for me. Other things would be integrating test questions into songs. At a young age children are able to remember the lyrics to a song, instead of memorizing content that they read. They may not fully understand it at first, but that comes later.

Eric |

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