How to Prep for Testing
No matter how they feel about state testing, teachers often feel pressured to make sure students are prepared and increase their scores. Although many factors are out of teachers’ control, there are a few easy steps teachers can do throughout the year that will help prepare students.
The most important thing to do is to start preparing earlier! A lot of classrooms test prep right before the actual exam. However, it is more effective to begin preparing for the test from the beginning of the year.
Although some students might pick up a few skills during last-minute cram sessions, they are generally ineffective. In fact, last minute cramming can make some students anxious and do worse on the test.
What can teachers do to help prepare their students for testing – before it’s too late?
1. Focus on the Standards
The best thing teachers can do for themselves and their students is to focus on their state standards. There is so much to teach and so little time to fit it in, and you don’t want to waste time teaching something that isn’t in your standards.
Granted, you may have to teach skills that students are missing in order to teach your standards, but that is not the same as getting entirely off track.
If you can, use your county’s curriculum map or meet with other teachers to determine which standards are your primary standards and which need less time. Creating a plan for teaching different units can help you cover your material more effectively.
2. Know Your Students
Teachers need to know their students. I know this is a no-brainer, but teachers need to know their students’ strengths and weaknesses. Some teachers analyze test data, while others prefer to use classwork to determine student needs.
3. Keep the End in Mind
What should students know by the end of the year? What skills should they have before they finish the class? What level of independence should they reach?
These are guiding questions that teachers can use to break down their curriculum. Use these answers to work backward when designing a unit. What lessons do you need to teach in order for students to gain these skills?
A good analogy is an athlete. An athlete doesn’t focus on what he or she can’t do, but what they want to do. Once he or she sets a goal, they work on skills to reach the goal.
Don’t focus on where students are now – focus on where you want them to be.
4. Analyze Data to Determine Mastery
If a student didn’t understand the skill during the unit, he or she probably won’t get it during last minute test prep either.
I know data has become a dirty word, but data is useful when used correctly. Teachers should analyze assessments, both formative and summative, to understand students’ level of understanding of the concepts or skills.
By using data effectively, teachers can offer targeted support throughout the year to those who need it.
5. Build Skills
Don’t wait to start teaching skills the month before the state test – start at the beginning of the year. Now I don’t mean you should teach lessons out of sequence, but rather don’t put off skills that you know are essential in your grade level.
For example, I often see teachers begin panicking about writing assessments 6-8 weeks before the test. Honestly, writing essays or narratives can take a lot of time, but it is something students need to practice repeatedly.
Teachers need to start teaching those major skills from the beginning of the year. Break them down in chunks. Again, for writing, maybe you focus on just one type of writing each quarter or just focus on topic sentences, then support.
Skills become more manageable to both teach and learn if you start from the beginning of the year.
(Next week I will talk about how to break writing down step by step – be sure to stop back if that is a problem spot for you.)
6. Know Your Test
I don’t believe in teaching to the test, but I do believe in knowing what the test expectations are. Most state tests are moving to higher level skills, yet older classroom materials didn’t necessarily focus on those higher levels.
Teachers need to understand the breakdown of what students are expected to know by the end of the year – which is what they are being tested on. (Well, that should be how the tests are set up….) Be sure you have covered that material during the school year.
Also, know the format of your state test. I know the Florida Standards Assessment (FSA) has different types of questions. Teachers need to introduce each question type to their students early in the year, then use them frequently in class so that students become familiar with them.
Listen, I know it isn’t always possible to cover everything before the state test – especially if your students are far below grade level. Stay focused on the end goal and keep your expectations high! Studies have shown that students who are held to higher expectations achieve more. (Expectations and Student Outcomes by Kathleen Cotton)
For more information about FSA questions styles, please read the post “10 Changes to FSA ELA You Need to Know.”
7. Explain the Purpose of Testing
Test Prep can be really helpful – or it can stress out students. It is critical that students understand that they need to do their best, but they shouldn’t feel threatened by the test. Teachers need to emphasize how tests can be helpful instead of punitive.
For example, I always discussed how I could use tests to help students better and see what lessons to teach. I also taught students how to look at scores and see what skills they mastered and which they needed to practice.
I also focused on how to do your best when taking a test. We discussed test anxiety and how being nervous shuts down your brain. (Nervousness puts people into “fight or flight” mode – which cuts off the thinking part of the brain. Instead, the amygdala takes over – what I called the alligator brain.) The best way to take a test is to realize that you just do your best and that’s okay.
8. Make Test Review Fun
Test review should be fun. If a review is dull and boring, the same students that tune out throughout the year will continue to struggle in test prep.
Test review can easily be turned into a class game. Although it can be hard to keep everyone fully engaged, teachers can find ways to keep most students on track. (I like to put students in pairs or groups of 3-4, then have them discuss their answers.)
Don’t wait to do test prep right before the test either. You can also use what I call “dead days” – half days before a long break, a day at the end of the quarter, a short day caused by a snow delay, etc. Spreading out review games helps students to spiral concepts and keep new concepts fresh in their mind.
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