Published Online: February 25, 2009

Test Prep Magic

Standardized tests are just around the corner, about to burst onto the scene accompanied by 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 as hard-pressed teachers administer entire packets of test questions daily.

But I don’t think you should have to abandon your teaching philosophy in order to tackle standardized tests. I believe a few simple strategies, combined with solid teaching, can result in some high bang-for-your-buck test prep without sacrificing quality classroom time.

1. Practice Bubbling. No, I’m serious.

After looking at my students’ data following our first district assessment, it became clear to me that we were all doomed. The minute I passed back their testing packets with their scored scantrons, their cries of injustice and disbelief rang through the halls.

"Hey! I circled B in the packet, but I bubbled C!"

"Mrs. Wolpert. I think there’s something wrong with this test."

Based on advice from a colleague, I had asked students to circle the answers in their test packet prior to bubbling their scantrons, thus giving us more data to look at when the tests results came back. This provided the opportunity to evaluate each answer and star the ones that we missed not because of content, but because of carelessness and sheer Bubble Bumbling. There were lots of stars.

In a shared moment of realization, we all concluded the following: Bubbling was a skill and we stunk at it. And since bubbling, for some reason, is still considered a necessary skill, my students needed to hone their own bubbling prowess. A little focused practice did the trick. For the next exam, I had a ticker tape on my interactive whiteboard scrolling the same message over and over: "Use Your Bubbling Power Wisely.”

Remember, when it comes to high-stakes testing, no task is so small that it can't contribute to great failures. Don't take for granted that something as simple as bubbling shouldn’t be reviewed.

2. Teach them How to Speak Test

The language used in tests is unlike any other human language or dialect. I’ve been using these special test terms in my own teaching, but it's also important to help students break down the meaning of the more nebulous words 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, a term that many teachers couldn't explain without an occasional "um, it’s like the…" as a lead-in. Students need to know exactly what to do when they see the verb "analyze."

Make a list of the most common words associated with test instructions and discuss what they're directing the test-taker to do. Remember that just telling students to "Read the directions" is not enough if they can't understand the directions.

3. Stare Your Own Data in the Face and Model Improvement

Don't be scared to analyze your own data. Use it to make test prepping more efficient. And be transparent in your analysis by sharing your thoughts with the kids. They will be more inclined to focus on what you want them to do if they understand why you're zeroing in on one thing and not another. And they will also be more open to deeper reflection about themselves.

Following our 2nd quarter district assessment this year, I displayed a bar graph that clearly showed Sentence Combination as one of the skills my students missed time and time again. I confided in them that I was frustrated (but I also celebrated how well we did on questions that asked them to Identify the Main Idea).

I was candid about my own process of teaching improvement, and I thought aloud about some strategies we could use to address their gaps. I told them that this data was going to help drive my new lesson planning.

Spend your time on what your students don’t get, not on what they have already achieved. As testing time approaches, put less attention on what you haven’t taught yet and more on what the data shows they do not understand yet.

4. 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—because ownership is a huge part of success. Have each student examine last year's scores and set goals that they agree to reach for.

I do this after each district assessment as well. After each test has been scored, my students identify their own levels (Advanced, Proficient, Basic, Below Basic, and Far Below Basic) based on their individual results. Then we mathematically figure out just how many more correct answers would push that student up into the next category on the following assessment.

We also look at things metacognitively. I have the students highlight the questions they got wrong on the district assessment. Then they create a Dual-Entry Journal to reflect on the ones they got wrong. One column is labeled "The Correct Answer" and the other is headed "Why It's Correct." They write a very specific three-sentence summary in this second column, using what they know about context clues, content vocabulary, and re-reading.

By breaking things down into concrete chunks and by getting the students to see that only one or two more questions would have put them into the Basic or Proficient category, the students can set more tangible goals. This goal-setting can be 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."

5. Make Confidence-Building Part of Test Prep

When all is nearly said and done, all you have left to say is, "I know you can do it."

They're ready to bubble little circles. They're ready to read three-paragraph passages and indicate the main idea. They're ready to consider vocabulary words, and to not be freaked if they've never heard the exact word before. After all, the knowledge of prefixes, roots, and suffixes gives them the power to puzzle through these challenges 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 make those guesses. Now they just need to trust it.

Does it always work? No, of course not. There’s no book for middle schoolers like The Secret that will reveal the magic formula to becoming "proficient." It’s all about skillful teaching, engaged learning, and hard work. But it’s also important to spend some pre-testing time counterbalancing the negative input your students may have heard about the tests, or themselves, or their school.

Last year, I had my students write Golden Lines to their peers, little words of encouragement for success. They finalized their Good Luck Golden Line onto a flash card and taped it to their desks for the testing group to see. The next day there was laughter in the classroom and cheers of confidence, as students found messages like:

"I will take the test as if the answers were second nature." (Brian)

"You can throw bullets and knives with your hard questions, but I shall dodge and shine through with triumph." (Alejandra)

"I shall enter school ready and prepared like a cowboy in a showdown." (Tony)

"You can test me in all you want, but I will conquer and defeat you." (Iluhi)

"Fear is the only thing that is feeding the test's power over the students." (Nathan)

"Failing is not an option, and passing is my way to success." (Kitty)

There may be no magic bullet when it comes to Test Prep, 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 see every day. I'm not worried, and you shouldn't be either. You're ready."

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