George Lucas Educational Foundation
Standardized Testing

Test Prep Doesn’t Have to Be Overwhelming

Help your students use technology and build their confidence—and teach them to speak the tests’ language.
Young boy sits at desk with a confused look on his take while taking a test.
Young boy sits at desk with a confused look on his take while taking a test.

Testing is just around the corner. Whether tests are designed by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SCAC) or the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), schools nationwide are most likely beginning those additional meetings, signing legal documents full of security warnings, and sending out robocalls with such sage wisdom as “Get sleep.”

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 daily test questions. I recently did some research on just how much time we spend reviewing for tests. In some instances it takes more than 20 percent of the school year, but some teachers recorded as much as 50 percent. That’s too much time, in my opinion.

But I do think you can have your test and eat it too (or something like that). You don’t have to entirely halt your teaching to tackle standardized tests—a few simple strategies, combined with solid teaching, can result in some bang-for-your-buck test prep without sacrificing classroom time.

Use Technology in a Targeted Way

While I’m not a fan of interim assessments, I do believe that you can design lessons within your content that more authentically give students practice in how to take our new online tests. For instance:

Read It to Me: Some students are given the opportunity to use a tool that reads the text to them. Teach students to look for this tool on different assignments before they even sit for a test. Teach them the typical icons to look for that represent this function. Develop lessons that ask students to access Read&Write for Chrome so that they can trigger documents to be read to them.

Use a Variety of Tools: Develop lessons that ask students to digitally highlight phrases or select terms and move them to other areas of a document. If students don’t have an ease in using these kinds of tools in class, they sure won’t it when they take a test.

Create Interactive Files for Students: Online tests are documents with hyperlinks. They include text to read, videos to watch, and images to view, and they ask students to click on, write about, drag to, etc. Develop some assignments that adopt this kind of multimedia information delivery system.

Don’t take for granted that our digital natives know how to use the digital tools they need in order to be successful on their online tests.

Teach Them 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. The word analyze, for instance, is not easily defined. It’s vague and, frankly, one that many teachers couldn’t define without a lead-in of “Um, it’s like...”

Make a list of the most common words used in test instructions. Remember that telling students to read the directions isn’t enough if they can’t understand the directions.

Study Your Data and Model How to Use It Formatively

Don’t be scared to analyze your own data. Use it to make prepping more efficient. Read and understand the data about your prior and current students. Determine your lessons not on what you haven’t yet taught, but rather on what the data shows they don’t understand. Combine this with the knowledge of what you know you need to work on, and focus on those weaknesses. Spend time on what your students don’t get and what might not come naturally for you—not on what they’ve already achieved or what you’ve already covered with ease. 

Show Them the Data and Set Individual Goals

Ownership is a huge part of success. Have each student examine their previous scores, setting goals that they agree to reach for.

Break things down into concrete chunks. If students see that only one or two more questions answered correctly might have put them in a higher category, they can set 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.

Give Them Strategies for When They Want to Give Up

I once asked my remedial students what went through their minds when they took tests. Their responses were frustrating and saddening. Many admitted that they shut down when they saw a wall of text. If every teacher encouraged students to employ just one strategy to help them when they wanted to give up, more students would succeed. Here are some strategies you can share:

  • Teach them how to chunk text so that they tackle little bites at a time.
  • Teach them how to break sentences down into their parts so that they can highlight the subject and predicate in their brains.
  • Teach them how to visualize the concept or gist of a passage.
  • Teach them how to activate prior knowledge or make connections to the material. For many kids, this doesn’t just happen magically—we have to preach it over and over and show them that they already have far more knowledge of our content areas in their heads than they realize.

There are many literacy strategies out there, and every teacher, no matter the subject, should become adept in encouraging at least one.

Build Confidence

At test time, there’s nothing you can do but say, “You’re ready.” Students have a skill they need to take these tests—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 themselves.

Does it always work? Of course not. After all, there isn’t a book out there for students called The Secret that says if you just think “proficient” hard enough, you’ll ace every test. What I’m talking about is spending some time on counterbalancing all of the negative input your students have heard about themselves, their school, and the assessments.

One 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 to 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.”

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Saedra's picture

This is my first year teaching and I find it amazing how much technology has evolved in the education system. Personally, I have always been a paper-pencil type of tester; I don't even like to read digital books on Kindle--give me the hard copy. To see the way students have to concentrate in front of a screen doesn't seem like the most effective way to test in my opinion. One thing I do believe online testing does for this generation, is it aligns them with what they are actually interested For this reason I feel as if they may be more intrigued but I still think student's have a better focus testing with paper-pencil. If anyone has any statistics on the success levels of (or lack there of) from testing online can you please share. I would like to see if the average test score has risen since schools integrated computer base testing.

Saedra's picture

Do you believe students in the same grade (5th grade for example), should all take the same exact state test? Or do you believe they should be tested on their ability? Because as you mentioned, some students need a gradual increase of difficulty while others can push the envelope and go beyond the standard.

Heather Wolpert - Gawron's picture
Heather Wolpert - Gawron
Middle school teacher by day, educational author/blogger by night

Hey Saedra,
Great question, and one that I have mixed feelings about. I like that many tests do level themselves based on student responses, and that is valuable in terms of quality of testing. I also think there is a value in seeing how students are doing by assessing them using similar criteria. I just don't like that this becomes a detrimental photo of their overall ability, rather than a snapshot of their progress that can be used formatively. It drives me nuts, for instance, that testing results come in so late, that we aren't using them well to help aid students. So I guess my answer is that I don't mind students in the same grade level take the same test, but there has to be a purpose that isn't simply about labeling and fear. Thanks so much for the great question!


Saedra's picture

Hello Heather,

You nailed it! That's pretty much where I was going with it; when students are forced to take these State exams and it becomes a photo of what they are capable of doing instead of a snapshot. I love the way you put that.

Thank you.

Saedra's picture

Thank you so much for sharing the article, I shared it with a few of my co-workers. Today, I had on my class schedule to take my class to the computer lab t0 test. I never really knew how they felt about it until I canceled it at the last minute. One of the students asked me " I thought we were going to the computer lab to test?" and I responded with " I had to reschedule..." The entire class said "YES!" They were happy they did not have to go to the computer lab, their response could've also been triggered because they knew they would be testing and who really likes testing. Nonetheless, I was certainly shocked with their response one way or another.

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