10 Steps to a Successful Standardized Test

by | Mar 19, 2019 | Teaching Resources, Teaching Strategies | 0 comments

I remember when the pressure to do well on Standardized tests increased. State testing went from something students did once a year so teachers could check their mastery of skills to a high-pressure constantly-discussed event.

Standardized testing slowly overtook the entire school year. In addition to the state tests, counties developed benchmark tests (and I swear gobs of other tests) that teachers had to give every few weeks.

At my elementary school, grade level teachers had to come up with rewards students would earn for taking the test. My co-teachers and I struggled with this, as students were supposed to take the test and do their best. Now I was supposed to buy them ice cream and organized play days because students just showed up for testing?

Reports of students throwing up on tests – and teachers having to pack the test up to prove it – were passed on the grapevine. Teachers were threatened with losing their jobs if they talked about the test or even looked at the test. Of course, they could also lose their jobs if their students did do well on the test.

1. Explain the Purpose of Testing & Assessment

Many students now fear assessment because it has been used as a weapon. Do well, and you are rewarded. Do poorly, and there are consequences – including failure. What happened to using testing as a way to see students’ strengths and weaknesses?

The purpose of assessment is to check students’ mastery of skills. Teachers should be using formative assessments throughout a unit to make sure students are understanding and acquiring the targeted skills. The summative assessments, including state testing, is to check for students’ mastery of the grade level standards.

If a student has tried their best and has not done well, that is a sign he or she needs support – not punishment.

2. Avoid Focusing on the State Test

If you want to increase students’ anxiety, talk about standardized testing frequently. Be sure to mention the dire consequences they face if they don’t do well.

If you want students to perform well on any type of assessment, focus on the skills and learning happening in your classroom. Emphasize that you use the assessments to see how well students understood the material. Even mention that testing helps you become a better teacher because you can see which lessons were effective – and which ones didn’t work.

This removes the pressure on students because the testing is really more about how you can help them learn instead of whether they passed or failed.

3. Help Parents Understand Testing

Tip number two only works if both the parents and teachers are using it. If teachers insist the assessment is used for supporting student learning but parents use it to punish students, testing is going to create anxiety.

Why do parents punish kids for grades? They want their children to do well. Teachers should help parents by giving them tips on how to support their child’s learning and explaining how grades correlate to mastery. If a child is earning Cs or lower even with their best effort, then he or she might benefit from extra support at home.

Please note: behavior and attitude are a different issue. However, I believe a lot of the student attitude stems from not doing well and feeling stupid. If we can change how parents see grades and testing, we can head off some of the behavior problems.

4. Teach How the Brain Works

Students are fascinated by how the brain works. I always spent a day or two teaching students about how their brain can help or hurt them on testing.

The amygdala is the brain’s “fight or flight” system. (I called it the alligator brain.) When someone gets scared or nervous, the amygdala takes over – and shuts off the rest of the brain (the thinking portion.) The amygdala is a safety measure built into your brain to keep you safe – which is why it kicks in when you are nervous.

If someone starts a test while they are nervous or scared, he or she literally cannot think. Their brain is in fight or flight mode, which does not allow them to access their knowledge. That is why it is essential for teachers to emphasize that students should just do their best – because it prevents students from going into fight or flight mode.

5. Build Relationships with Students

The easiest way to improve students’ achievement is to create a relationship with them. Just talking with students can help change their attitude about school – especially if they have been labeled a “problem” student in the past.

It’s really true that students will work hard for teachers they like.

Relationship building doesn’t have to be difficult. Kids can tell when teachers are interested in them and genuinely care. Spend time talking to students in the hallway, in the lunch line, at recess, etc. It might take time, but eventually, students will try harder if they know you want them to succeed.

6. Teach Study Skills

Many students really don’t know how to study effectively – especially in the upper grades. Teachers begin to assume students have different skills, and some kids fall through the cracks.

Teachers should take the time to teach and model a variety of ways to study. Be sure to include strategies that use different learning styles, such as pacing while reviewing flash cards, writing our definitions, or having a parent quiz them orally.

(Sending home a list of study strategies would also help parents support their students.)

7. Teach Test-Taking Skills

Test-taking skills are different from study skills. What are some strategies to use to do your best? Teachers often go over a few of these, such as crossing off the wrong answer on multiple-choice questions or skipping questions you don’t know. However, teachers really need to make this a targeted lesson and then review them throughout the year.

Teachers also should think about their differently-abled learners and which test-taking strategies will work best for them. Some students will struggle with particular strategies. For example, my son has a vision processing issue. Skipping questions and returning to them is difficult for him because he has a hard time scanning text. My nephew has OCD, and he cannot jump around on a test or use a word bank effectively. Trying to get him to skip around was frustrating for both him and me.

8. Teach Testing Vocabulary

Testing verbs was a new concept for me when I returned to the classroom after teaching online. However, it makes a lot of sense. Students often miss questions because they do not understand the vocabulary used in the problem.

Starting in elementary school, teachers need to explain and model test questions that ask for different responses. For example, what does it mean to analyze or to compare and contrast information?

Teachers in testing grades may want to create testing vocabulary books that students can use as a reference. Teachers of older students should make sure students understand the testing vocabulary and not assume they already know the words.

9. Make Test Prep Fun

I recently saw a social media post by the Ohio Association for the Education of Young Children. It stated that scientists have determined that it takes about 900 repetitions to create a new synapse in the brain – unless it is done with play, in which case it only takes 10-20 times.

This is an excellent reason to include games and play into your classroom throughout the year. Test review and test prep can easily be incorporated into a game instead of a worksheet (even if one is used during a game.)

10. Avoid Test Rewards

Some of this might be out of your control, but creating rewards for high stakes tests just increases the pressure on them. If you want to make pancakes for students, just make the pancakes without tying it to testing. Do you think students deserve an extra long recess for focusing hard during the test? Tell them after the test is done – and they will really appreciate that you noticed their effort.

I hope you found some new ideas in these tips. Do you have another test prep tip for teachers?


Flannery, Mary Ellen. “The Epidemic of Anxiety Among Today’s Students.” NEA Today, 28 Mar. 2018, 10:39 AM, The Epidemic of Anxiety Among Today’s Students.

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10 Steps to a Successful Standardized Test