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Test Prep Doesn't Have to Be Overwhelming

Heather Wolpert-Gawron

ELA Teacher, Middle School, Curriculum Coordinator TOSA
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."

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Heather Wolpert-Gawron

ELA Teacher, Middle School, Curriculum Coordinator TOSA

Comments (58) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Cindy Hillsman's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thank you for finally acknowledging the white elephant standing in the corner of the room! We can all argue with the validity of the data...."this was a slow group, they had a sub for 6 weeks when they were in the 1st grade, they wore blue sneakers to school", and the list of excuses goes on and on. Lets do more than collect data. Lets look for trends and look critically at what we are doing in our classrooms (or not doing). Lets use the data to change instruction and help kids.

Tamara Fish's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thank you for your input on preparing students for standardized tests. I currently teach a high school Algebra I course which requires an end of course assessment for graduation requirement. I am constantly encouraging my students and working on confidence building; however, the majority of my students still feel "beat-down" by the material. I will try to put more emphasis on the "You're ready" aspect, but how do I get them to take more responsibility for their own scores? So many times, students tend to blow off the test, thinking they can do it and rarely do any preparation for themselves.

Amanda H.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thank you for such an informative, direct examination of test preparation. It's always shocking to me to see students who clearly understand the material perform poorly on tests. The strategies and ideas you mentioned could certainly help those with test anxiety. I think as teachers we sometimes forget the difficulties caused by seeing a task that includes "analyzing" or even having to bubble in the answers.

I'm wondering how much time you think should be allotted to these test-taking strategies that aren't content-related, and how directly instruction should correspond to upcoming tests, especially standardized tests. I always struggle with the idea of "teaching to the test," but I certainly want students to feel as prepared as possible.

Kelly's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that test prep and testing are both very stressful times of the year. It is important to teach the students how to speak "test language" and to become familiar with the language that is on the test. Luckily I am a special education teacher so I was able to read the directions to my students and put them in words that they would understand. When reading the first blog I learned that it could be helpful to make a list of the most common words used during the test. Even though I can rephrase the directions it could be beneficial for them to know the test language so they have two ways of understanding. It is also important to give them positive reinforcement during the test because it helps them relax!!

guide's picture
Counsellor with a passion to build world class assessments

Loving your studies and not fearing exams is easy and the tests will be not be overwhelming. Teachers do teach you well but learning has to be your personal effort. Lets understand learning first and then three ingredients making you fall in love with tests/exams


To impart knowledge of or skill in; give instruction in.

* Teaching is giving (instructions) of knowledge.
* Teaching is a must. Good instructions cannot be equated. However in classroom teaching the transfer (giving) of knowledge from teacher (instructor) to student (learner) can be limited by
o Time (say 60 minutes for a class of 40 students).
o Instructor's Knowledge.
o How much receptive is Learner (student) in the class.
* Learning should be objective of education. Teaching should competently and compassionately facilitate learning.
* Memorising should not be mistaken with learning. Most of what is remembered is short lived and is quickly forgotten.

To acquire knowledge of or skill in by study, instruction, or experience

* Learning is gaining of Knowledge. Learning is construction of knowledge in your mind
* Learning is what I (student) am doing.
* Learner (student) should only be limited by Learner's own creativity leading to self construction of knowledge and not to the extent of instructor's Knowledge.
* Assessment of Learner's Knowledge measures level of transfer of Knowledge (i.e Learning) and also indicates shortcomings (as concepts not clear) or areas (topics) not covered (no transfer of Knowledge in some required areas)
* Assessment evaluates learning and also creates learning challenges thus self motivation for you to learn.
* Learners find knowledge retention long lived in their minds, because they put in efforts to gain understanding in form clear enough for them. Learning leaves learner enriched with lasting Knowledge.

To impart knowledge does not ensure the acquisition of knowledge

The three ingredients for learning are

Goals Challenges and Experiences

The first two i.e goals and challenges are learning accelerators and third i.e experience builds confidence


* Knowing your goals fuel achievement
* The goal is where we want to be. The objectives are the steps needed to get there
* Know the extent of course to be covered
* Understand timelines in which this has to be done
* Break your course in short objectives
* Each objective should be specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound (SMART)

The more you see your goal and feel your steps covering distance each day towards goal, more will be your desire to reach the post


What Challenges do

You jump a two feet wall daily with ease as do many others

I increase the height of wall by 1/4 th of foot. You will still be able to jump it with some difficulty. Few days later you will be jumping this wall with ease

I keep increasing the height of wall slowly and you are repeating the process

Few months later, you are jumping three and a half foot wall with ease

Had I increased the height of wall by one and half foot on first day itself, what would have happened ?

What challenges do

Challenge in learning is the best motivation for Learning
Challenge will keep boredom far away and instead initiate involvement.
Challenges motivate you to excel


Experience: Firsthand knowledge by direct participation

You are visiting a new town abroad for first time. A sense of uncertainty prevails
Visiting same town again. The confidence has grown. That's what experience do- put fears to rest.

Learning from text book is one thing
But sitting in exam is other

Textbook is in your hand and you feel it

Exam will happen only once.

Few unrelated areas not spelt in text book - time management, nervousness,
impact of negative mark, benchmarking can make difference

Exam will happen once but can be simulated earlier

Experience generates confidence and will put many doubts and fears to rest


But important question is from where will the challenge come or who will daily pose a challenge to you for you to conquer. One website which can pose challenge to you through your self created tests on vast number of subjects their topics, subtopics and key concepts is You can get lots of detail on this portal on learning. has a Exam Analyser module for understanding GOALS has a Self Assessor module for posing CHALLENGES has a Test simulator module for test EXPERIENCES

Nicole Council's picture

Although I was a first year teacher last year, and teaching in a grade where MSA is not applied, I still faced the stress of preparing my students for standardized testing. Mid year, the class began preparing for Stanford 10 and Olsat testing. Time and time again, our IRT's would return bubbling sheets to us to fix the pencils out of the lines, darken the bubbles etc... I began holding contests for a "Bubble King" and "Bubble Queen". The King or Queen of the bubbles would be chosen by the scantron that had the neatest, darkest bubbles that were IN the circle. Emphasis was placed on the qualifications to win the prize-bottle of bubbles-and the title of King of Queen. This really motivated the students to slow down and take pride in their bubbles. Shockingly, many students informed me that they then double checked their bubbles as well. (This then leads in to my next question.)

Is there a strategy to use to teach the students to double check their work????

I love how you've stressed the importance of teaching them to "speak the test". I found often in my everyday exit slips, students completing an answer, but not following the directions. For example, if they are asked to "list" and not explain, I had little ones writing complete sentences. When asked why they chose that method, they answered in a mimicked me when I remind them to always use complete sentences. I understand now the importance that needs to be placed on both reading the directions accurately, but more importantly, understanding them.

Thank you for your words of motivation, clarification and encouragement.

Nikki Council

Brenda Buffington's picture
Brenda Buffington
Seventh Grade Reading and Language Arts teacher from TN; Walden Student

I appreciate all the great information about how to prepare students for standardized tests. Next year, in the state of Tennessee, our test scores will count 35% of our evaluations. The pressure is mounting. I love the straightforward suggestions for teaching kids how to read the tests and interpret the language. I also love the idea of "triage". The word itself will most likely engage students! Thanks!

Dawn Henningsen's picture
Dawn Henningsen
Elementary teacher, tutor from St. Peters Missouri

This is my first blog.

Currently I'm employed by a school district to work with small groups of students throughout the day to prepare them for the MAP test. I work with K-5. However only 3-5 grades are actually preparing for the "test". I go over test taking tips, vocabulary and sample test questions. Some of my lessons I repeat multiple times. I'm starting to feel the monotony of repeating myself so much. But the students are becoming somewhat anxious about all the hipe with test preparation. I remind them to relax and just do your best during test time. Do you have any suggestions for making these "lessons" more fun?

Thank you for the information you provided thus far.

Lynelle's picture

State testing is overwhelming for the students and teachers. I will use your test taking techniques. I am sure that they will help my students .

lynne slavic's picture
lynne slavic
Education specialist

............made a serious difference for our students. They practiced filling the in, of course. They also used them to make great pictures. Fear is gone. Bubble sheets are a tap in to years of fear about testing.

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