Now that it’s what I not so affectionately refer to as “testing season”, I wanted to share a couple of my test prep ideas. Some of them are tried and true, and a few are things I’ve tried out for the first time this year. I do want to throw out a disclaimer and say that I do not believe good test prep is, or should be, the same thing as “drill and kill” and “teaching to the test”. Those things often get lumped together, when it’s actually completely different things.
I am a firm believer that the best and most authentic test prep is quality instruction that begins on Day 1. It doesn’t matter what amazing test prep strategy, game, data collection method, or anything else I have….if I don’t provide sound instruction all year long, my students will not be prepared. Good instruction takes students learning at a basic level to learning with understanding, which allows students to apply and transfer their knowledge and skills to new problems. There is obviously a plethora of ways to provide this instruction, which is part of what makes teaching fun! I love using a combination of instructional strategies and adapting my lessons to the needs of each class.
I love learning about how the brain learns. In fact, I like it so much I received my Ed.S. in Brain Research. I definitely learned a tremendous amount of useful information, but the one thing that stuck with me more than anything is that practice does not make perfect. Instead, practice makes permanent. Practice without guidance and feedback is almost counterproductive, especially if students are practicing a procedure or strategy incorrectly. If we practice something the wrong way over and over again, we permanently engrave the wrong action into our habitual responses. It is important for us to not only provide opportunities for students to practice, but to practice correctly. When students are able to review and practice material over long periods of time, they are more likely able to store and receive that information and content from their long-term memory.
This is why I like to add a mix of spiral review into my daily instruction. It keeps challenging skills and concepts fresh in students’ minds and prevents them from forgetting content taught early in the year. I incorporate spiral review with my morning work and homework, and I feel that it’s been very beneficial for my students. You can read more about my morning work here.
I also like to prepare my students for the format of the test. Just like whenever I introduce a new manipulative, I like to give my students the opportunity to explore, discuss, and ask questions about any new tool they will see on their high stakes test. I prefer doing this is in a casual, laid-back environment, rather than in the serious and silent environment of the big test. Up until last year, this was a very quick and easy process for me, because our state test was fairly straight-forward. As long as my students could use a separate scantron form, they were fine. Last year was our first year with our new state test, GA Milestone, and the format of the constructed response problems confused my students terribly. It broke my heart to watch my students agonize over the format, rather than content of the test.
This year my students will be testing online for the first time, and that’s the one thing that has me truly nervous about testing this year. We’ve been provided with a small sample of our testing platform, and I’ve introduced that to students, but I’d love to have a little more to work with. Since my students will be typing their constructed response problems, I am extremely thankful that all of my students now have access to a Chromebook. We received them in February, and I’ve used them every day since then. The first week or so that we had them, it took my students about an hour to write a five sentence paragraph. That had me more than a little worried, but after consistent use, they can write a paragraph in about 20 minutes, so we’re definitely making progress. You can read more about how to get started with Google Classroom here.
I know that data has recently become a major source of contention for teachers, and believe me, I get it. I don’t think it’s data in general that teachers have a problem with. It’s countless hours of collecting and disaggregating data that has little to no direct impact on our instruction. However, that doesn’t mean that all data has no purpose or that it can’t serve an important role in our classrooms. One of my favorite ways to collect data is through a weekly line plot. Each week, I give my students a nine question, multiple choice quiz that reviews the math concepts we’ve learned up to that point in the year. After the test, I see how many students missed each question and record the data on a line plot. My students and I look at the line plot to see which question was most frequently missed, and then we determine why is was so difficult. More often than not, is a matter of something about the wording of format of the question that gave students the trouble, so we work together on how to prevent that from happening again.
I’m sure it sounds fairly insignificant, but my students absolutely LOVE looking at the data. They get so excited on weeks where we do especially well and are motivated to buckle down on weeks that gave them trouble. It also allows me to keep track of what standards are causing my students the most trouble. If I begin to see a trend or pattern, I make sure to throw in some extra lessons to help with any misconceptions. You can see some pictures of what I use for the weekly review here.
Test Prep Vocabulary
One of our new buzz words is directional vocabulary. I first heard it from a colleague, and she explained that our students struggled on constructed response test items, because they didn’t understand the directions or the question. She went on to share that it was the directional vocabulary of the test that the students didn’t understand, rather than the actual content. I had seen evidence of this all year, but on a whim I decided to assess my students’ understanding of directional vocabulary words.
I was shocked! While I knew it would be challenging for them, I had no idea that this was such an area of weakness. I’ve since placed an emphasis on these vocabulary terms, and I’ve been giving explicit instruction on the words. I developed vocabulary lists with essential terms for success on high stakes tests. I’ve included 15 language arts terms and 16 math terms on the list. For each of the words, I created a vocabulary booklet. In the booklet, students will complete a Frayer Model graphic organizer for each word. 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 a language arts practice and math practice for each of the words that overlap.
Next year, I want to focus on this earlier in the year, and I plan to add the words to my Word of the Week bulletin board. I made word wall cards that would match my Prefix and Suffix of the Week, as well as my Homophone of the Week.
Many of us have very strong feelings about testing and test prep, but I do think it’s especially important to watch what we say about testing in front of our students. I don’t want my students to approach testing with dread, nervousness, or fear. To be clear, I do want them to take the test seriously, but I don’t want them losing sleep over it either. I talk about testing with extreme confidence and try to make my students feel that they are absolutely the most prepared students in the whole country. We talk about all the hard work we’ve already done, and how if they can handle third grade, they’ll be sure to do amazing on the test. I work hard to hide my own anxiety that typically shows up right around testing week (even though I promise myself that I won’t sweat it this year).
It sounds a little crazy, but I do try to make testing days fun. I might throw in a little art project that we normally wouldn’t do in an effort to prevent my students from becoming completely drained, because overwork wears them down quickly. In addition, I like to give my students small snacks that aren’t too terribly sugary or complicated.
I made little testing cards to attach to the snacks, just to offer cheesy words of encouragement. You can download the tags here. I made a few of the cards specifically for my current group of students. I have an extremely competitive group this year, and every day at recess they either play a version of dodgeball or kickball. They play with as much fierceness as I would expect to see at a national championship game-every single day. When the game gets tight they say they’re going into “beast mode” and they really go all out. I have no idea if that’s actually a thing-but to my students it sure is! I couldn’t help but add that phrase to my testing sayings:)