Every year I start the school year with good intentions. I’m going to use best practices all year, and I’d not going to stress about test prep and scores. We’ll work hard all year and let the scores take care of themselves. I do pretty good before Christmas.
Then, sometime around the middle of February, I begin to feel my neck muscles tighten on a daily basis. As we start to review, a somewhat panicked feeling begins to creep up on me. I start worrying about the worst case scenario and fall right back into the trap of over stressing about the test.
I write that to share that I completely get it. Not stressing the test is MUCH easier said than done. But, there are things we can do to prepare our students for their high stakes tests that will reduce stress and help raise those scores. In this blog post, I’ve shared three things to avoid and my tip top favorite test prep strategies and resources.
Let’s start with my disclaimer statement. I fully believe that the absolute BEST test prep is high quality instruction all year. There is no computer program or workbook series that can replace good teaching. BUT, I also recognize that there is a time and a place for test prep.
Test Prep Mistake 1
The first thing to avoid is placing unreasonable pressure or stress on students. Of course we want them to do well and yes, we’re going to push them to do their best. But that’s not about the test. That’s about being a good teacher. But if all I talk about, day in and day out is the test and make it a bigger deal that it should be, I’m only going to hinder my students’ performance. I try to take the opposite direction. I act SO overconfident. Yes, I fake it sometimes. I pretend that I’m worried that they’ll do so well that the test graders will think they had the answer key, or something silly like that. It’s very easy to project stress or frustration onto students but it’s something that MUST be avoided. There is absolutely no benefit to stressed students.
Test Prep Mistake 2
The second thing we don’t want to do is teach in a way that is solely about the test. If the BULK of my instruction is based around test prep questions, then I have to ask myself what I’m teaching for. You bet I want high test scores, but that’s not the end game. We can’t let PRACTICE or PREP become our actual instruction. Endless amounts of test prep packs or computer games won’t teach a concept for real understanding. We have to continue moving forward with authentic instruction.
Test Prep Mistake 3
The third thing to avoid is test prep without feedback or reteaching. I could give my students four gazillion practice problems, but if I don’t work with the ones who are missing the problems, that practice is pointless. In fact, it may be harmful, because students may develop an inaccurate procedural memory for that skill or concept. As we discover areas of concern, we have to determine was it the style of question that tricked students, was it something that needs to be retaught or something that needs to be taught in a different context. If we keep practicing without addressing the needs shown through the practice we’re not providing the best possible support.
My Favorite Test Prep Resources
As I said earlier I never, ever want to stress my students over testing. I also don’t want to bore my students. I’ve watched my students eyes completely glaze over when I passed out yet another review sheet. That’s not productive. We have to keep it exciting, which isn’t always easy.
This year I’ve started using Kahoot for my test prep. That may not seem like a big deal, but let me say from experience, my kids go crazy for it. They BEG to do a Kahoot review all of the time. The engagement is through the roof. You can adapt the games to play in teams, ghost mode, or even homeroom against homeroom. It’s easy to keep it creative and novel for students.
Plus, it’s SO easy to use Kahoot data for small groups. The reports give SO MUCH good information. The question above gave my class a lot of trouble. I was able to identify who missed the question and work with them in a small group. That immediate feedback is incredibly helpful.
Centers are a great way to prepare students for their state test, and they don’t have to be boring at all. As students begin to develop a case of “spring fever”, it’s important to keep activities novel and engaging for students.
I like to have students review a huge variety of skills with the spring centers, and I use this time to meet with small groups on skills that need extra work. I don’t utilize centers in my reading instruction, but I do incorporate them a few times a week in math. You can see my third grade Spring Math Centers here and my fourth grade Spring Math Centers here.
Many students struggle on constructed response test items, because they didn’t understand the directions or the question. It is often the directional vocabulary of a question or test that the students didn’t understand, rather than the actual content. Because of this, I place an emphasis on these directional vocabulary terms. I developed vocabulary list with 15 language arts terms and 16 math terms that would likely be seen on a standardized test. For each of the words, I created a vocabulary booklet. In the booklet, students will complete a graphic organizer for each of the testing terms. For the language arts words, students read a brief reading passage and then use the passage to answer a question use that particular vocabulary word.
For the math words, there is a math problem to solve that incorporates the vocabulary word. I tried to use math problems that would also be appropriate for 3rd-5th grades. There is both a language arts practice and math practice for each of the words that overlap.
You can find the Vocabulary Booklet here.
Constructed Response Math Assessments
I’ve made constructed response a huge part of my math instruction. Since I want constructed response problems to be an integral part of my day-to-day instruction and assessment process, I created a set of –Common Core Constructed Response Math Assessments. This is very similar to my other Common Core Math Assessments, but rather than being multiple choice or short answer, each of these questions require students to apply the standard in a problem solving context. There are two assessments for each of the Common Core Math Standards. In the majority of the assessments, there is only one question on a page. However, the questions all require students to explain their thinking in words and to use number sentences and/or visual representation. There is also a rubric at the bottom of each page.
Multiple Choice Math Assessments
Since my students typically have very little experience with multiple choice questions, they are easily tricked by wrong answers and often try to choose the first answer that could possibly work, rather than the best answer. I typically feel confident about my students’ basic math skills and conceptual understanding of the math concepts I’ve taught, but I’m usually not confident with their multiple choice testing skills and strategies, so I’ve created one multiple choice assessment for each of the math Common Core Standards. When I created the questions and answer choices, I tried to concentrate on the style of problems that give my students the most trouble common error patterns when creating my answer choices. This is a great way for me to authentically integrate test prep into my assessments. Of course, this isn’t the only format of assessment I use, because I certainly try to differentiate my assessments with a combination of traditional assessments, performance tasks, projects, and portfolios.
After I give an assessment, I group students according to what they need to work on. For instance, I always have a handful of students that just need to slow down and think about their answers, so I’ll pull those students back and meet with them for a few minutes. I may have another group who did well but got confused on one or two questions, so I’ll meet with those students to discuss the wording of the question and how and why they were confused on that question, which usually doesn’t take too long. Naturally, I’ll spend a great deal of time with my students who truly did not understand a particular concept. You can see the third grade version here and fourth grade version here.
Test Prep Spiral Review
When I changed my spiral math review from an open ended format to a multiple choice format, it was bad. I couldn’t believe how much my students’ scores dropped from one week to another. The content was exactly the same. The only difference was the format of the test. With a little experimentation, I realized that it wasn’t the content that gave my students trouble. Instead, it was because my students had no idea how to take a multiple choice test. Because multiple choice tests aren’t going anywhere, I’ve since incorporated a multiple choice spiral review assessment that I use once a week. I start this at the very beginning of the year before I’ve found that short doses of test prep over the course of the year is far more beneficial that cramming the weeks or month before testing.
Constructed Response Practice
I heavily reinforce constructed response problems throughout the year, because they are a great way to get students to think deeply about math concepts. I originally hated constructed response problems, but they’ve now become a natural part of my instruction. You can read more about how I teach constructed response problems here.
I use either my 3rd grade or 4th grade constructed response pack for extra practice. They have tons of tools for teaching students how to solve extended constructed response math problems. This pack includes posters, bookmarks, graphic organizers, and 30 constructed response questions. I organized the questions into six different categories, so you can build upon your students’ progress and gradually increase the level of difficulty of the problems.
Quizlet is another game that my students love! It’s all computer based, and we complete it on our Chromebooks. Groups are given questions based on the vocabulary words and definitions. By the end of the game, students will work through all of the vocabulary words. The fun twist to the game is that the terms are divided equally among the students in the group. For example, if I have 24 terms Student A will have 6 of the terms, Student B will have 6 different terms, and so on. Students have to work together to not only determine what is the correct answer but who has the correct answer.