10 Tips for Tackling Test Prep

It’s test prep season!  No matter how you feel about your state tests, almost all of us have students who are not prepared for them and we also know how important the results are for our students.  And if groups of our students are lacking important skills at this point in the year, it’s a good time to focus in on reteaching those skills anyway, so let’s just embrace it and make it as positive an experience as possible.  Test prep doesn’t have to mean drilling test-taking strategies endlessly and enduring the lack of motivation brought on by bored and discouraged students.  Even if the test is in the forefront of your mind, it doesn’t have to be at the forefront of your instruction.  Here are some strategies that have worked for YES Prep teachers:

Identify the issues.  Spend time combing through your student data to figure out which students need support with which skills.  From there, determine whether or not the students are actually lacking the skills or if it’s a testing issue and they didn’t understand the format or design of the question.  A room full of students practicing skills they already know is a recipe for resentment and low motivation.

Allow kids to own the info.  Once you’ve broken down the data, give it to the kids.  If students know exactly what they mastered and what they need support in, they’re more likely to feel empowered to improve the data.  And don’t stop with the data.  Make sure students know details about the test – which skills get tested most, how many questions there are, how much time they’ll have – the more information they have, the more in control they’ll feel over the outcome and what they need to do to get there.

Allow parents to own the info.  Some of our teachers have organized parent meetings to give students’ families the same deep level of information they give the students, with powerful results.  For struggling students, having the whole family feel empowered to take ownership for the students’ success can make a huge difference.

Make it authentic.  Just because you’re teaching a skill that will be on the test doesn’t mean you have to use testing materials to do it.  Make sure the lesson’s focus is on mastering the skill, not the test type. 

Mix it up.  One of the most common mistakes we make when we reteach something or hold a tutorial on it is that we explain things the same way we did the first time.  With a few students this might work, but often if they didn’t get it the first time, explaining it the same way isn’t going to help them, it’s just going to make them zone out.  Especially for skills that are tested heavily and that many students need to review, take the time to learn a new approach or lesson idea. 

Push for justification.  No matter the content area or grade level, students being able to articulate why an answer is right, why it’s better than another answer, and why other answers are wrong is an essential skill.  I incorporated this into classroom discussion when we were going over answers by challenging students to prove each other wrong and ‘make their case’ as if they were in a courtroom presenting evidence.  With the implementation of CCSS, we also know this will be a major skill moving forward for most of us.

Take off the answer choices.  When you are having students grapple with multiple choice questions, take the answers off and have them answer the questions that way first.  For struggling students this can be really helpful because the answer choices can sometimes misguide them.  For example, on a reading test, if the students read over the questions and answers before they read the passage, they may latch onto a distractor answer choice that can shade their whole reading of the passage.  Or on a math problem, the distractor answers that make the most sense can turn the problem into more of a riddle than a skill-based problem.

Allow flexibility with strategies.  Sometimes we can find success with giving students very formal, step-by-step strategies for approaching a test.  Often, though, this rigid system doesn’t gel with kids and for our more successful students it may be unnecessarily cumbersome.  The other problem is that the strategies often don’t transfer to any other testing situation.  The most successful strategies are ones that give students enough of a structure to be confident and comfortable on test day and that slow them down enough to make sure they’re careful, while still being general enough to apply to any testing situation.  For example, many of our ELA teachers use this list:

  1. Determine genre
  2. Take notes as you read
  3. Infer or respond to strong language as you see it
  4. Summarize at the end

Allow even more flexibility with strategies.  The students who aren’t struggling on the test hate doing test prep.  We know this and unfortunately we can’t always accommodate them and exempt them from all of it.  I found one strategy that worked with them, though.  Any time we did a practice passage in my ELA class, if they got a 90% or higher, they didn’t have to do the strategies I’d taught them the next time.  This worked well for 2 reasons.  First, for kids who could ace it, they got to speed through it and be happy that I acknowledged their skills.  Secondly, once they dropped the strategies, some students’ scores dropped and they learned that slowing down and using the strategies can actually help them.  This helped them be more bought in to the strategies and motivated to use them as necessary to get the best score they could.

Celebrate!  As much as possible, celebrate the progress and success students are making.  Instead of offering rewards if they do well (click here to read why), add in lots of praise and small, unexpected celebrations of success like stickers, phone calls home, and cheesy dollar-store prizes.  Don’t underestimate the motivating power of teacher praise and personal pride in their achievements!

This article was originally published on April 8, 2014

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