George Lucas Educational Foundation

Set ’Em Up for Success: Tips for Tackling the Tests

April 9, 2015

The sky is clear, the wind is blowing, and track season is well under way. It might feel like the school year is winding down, but it also means standardized testing is here. I don’t think I know a single teacher (or student) who looks forward to this time of year. And we may have many concerns about the value of the tests, the validity of the scores, and the misuse of the results. However, for most of us in education, the annual tests are part of our job, which means they are part of our students’ jobs, too.

Before I go any further, I want to acknowledge that testing can be quite a hot button topic, worthy of a trigger-alert for some of us. My goal with this post is to share ways to improve the testing situation for our students. While I understand the need to vent about the injustices of the testing system, my purpose here is to talk about how, within the current system, we can make our classrooms and education experiences positive for our students.

It’s too late to cram any more information into their growing brains. We’ve spent the year reading, writing, calculating, learning, creating, responding, analyzing and reporting. As my mother used to say before a big test, if you haven’t learned it by now, it’s too late. Go ahead and take that test.

But what if there is more we can do, beyond academic and test-strategy preparation, to make the mandated testing experience a positive one for our students?

Regardless of how we feel about the tests, the reality is that our students worry about them and stress over their answers. And then late in the summer, long after they’ve left our classrooms, they receive their results in the mail. These are meaningful experiences for our students, and how we present the tests to them will impact how they experience the tests and interpret their own scores. They are a significant part of our students’ education that can greatly impact their self esteem and attitudes toward school and learning. Over the years I have discovered that I can positively affect my students’ testing experiences in a few ways.

Communicate Confidence

When I communicate my confidence in their ability to think hard, read carefully and determine right answers; to persevere when they get frustrated; and to show off what they have learned this year, I see them sit up straighter, adjust their thinking caps, and get serious about their work. Numerous studies have shown a significant relationship between a teacher’s expectations of a student and the student’s performance, not only in that teacher’s class, but over the student’s long term academic career ( While correlation does not equal causation, we can’t ignore the power of our expectations of our students.

Clarify Responsibility

Our students should never be made to feel responsible for the reputation of our school or of our teaching. We all feel the pressure of the test scores: they are reported in the news, lined up side-by-side with neighboring schools; they may be used to assess our work; and they often determine curriculum and scheduling for the following year. But none of these burdens should be carried by our students. They are responsible for their own learning and their own performance on the tests, and that is plenty of pressure as it is.

Assign Purpose

Our students need to see value in their efforts on the tests. My 8th graders are old enough (and cynical enough) to calculate whether or not to try on an assignment. Since test results aren’t released until summer, they know their scores won’t affect their grades in my class.  So why should they try? I let students know that their permanent academic file (they are always surprised to hear that it exists!) contains their report card grades and test scores. While I don’t want to scare them about the test, I also want them to be aware that those scores will stay with them. They deserve to know this so they can give it their best shot.

I also remind students that although the test doesn’t look much like the work we’ve been doing all year, test-taking is just one of those givens in most schools. The more comfortable they get with a variety of test formats, the better they will do on future tests. I want to build their academic confidence, not shrug off the tests and let them think it’s OK to not try.

As frustrating as the current testing system is, we owe our students the best possible education experiences we can give them. Sometimes that means learning how to succeed in a stressful environment. And when we empower them to do so, they can build on those successes in their futures. And when those test scores arrive in their mailboxes, they can be proud of their sincere efforts.

This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.

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