5 Tips to Triumph over Test Prep

This post written by Angela Watson

Maintaining balance is impossible without a clearly defined vision for why you teach. No matter how others may choose to evaluate your work, you can’t define your own success as a teacher according to whether students pass a standardized test. That’s a recipe for frustration and burnout.


This month on the Global Search for Education by Cathy Rubin, we are reflecting on How do you balance preparation for high stakes assessments with teaching and learning in your classroom. I asked an amazing teacher, Angela Watson, to share her wisdom. Her show, Angela Watson’s Truth for Teachers, is my must-listen to podcast every Monday morning. She is a helpful part of my PLN and I hope you’ll add her to yours as well.

Manage Your Mindset

Instead, go into the classroom each day with a single-minded focus on making a difference for kids or igniting a passion for your subject matter. Having this kind of clear vision for teaching will permeate everything you do in the classroom. It will bring a deeper sense of purpose to otherwise disheartening test prep activities. It will help you maintain your (bigger, healthier) perspective even if everyone around you is anxious about test scores.

Staying focused on your vision will also help you keep your enthusiasm, which makes learning more enjoyable for kids. If you’re stressed out from focusing too much on high stakes assessment, students will sense that, and it creates anxiety in them, too.

Motivate Students in Positive Ways

One of the best things you can do for students is to stop reminding them about the importance of standardized tests. I used to get very stressed out because I felt like I cared more about my kids’ scores than most of them did, so I would constantly remind them, “You need to know this–the test is in 2 months! If you don’t pass this test, you’re going to be in third grade again next year!”

I cringe when I think back on how much I pressured my students. Kids need to know the importance of the test, but more importantly, they need to know the importance of learning and hard work. Stay focused on getting them motivated and helping them take ownership of their learning.

Practice Tested Skills in a Non-Test Prep Format

Students do need to know test-taking strategies and be familiar with the format of the standardized tests they’ll be taking, but most kids don’t need daily (or even weekly) exposure to the format. Look for creative ways to help kids practice tested skills in authentic, meaningful contexts.

Experiment with alternative strategies for implementing the test prep activities and worksheets you’re mandated to give. Here are 5 ideas:

  1. Problem solve collaboratively. Instead of passing out a review worksheet each day as a warm up, occasionally project the page for your class to see, and have them work with a partner to solve problems collaboratively and talk about their strategies.
  2. Make it a game. Try reviewing the answers together in a fun game format. Have kids award themselves a point for each answer they get right, and challenge themselves to reach a set number of points by the end of the month.
  3. Get kids moving. Set up test prep questions in a “scoot” format so students can stand up and move in between answering questions.
  4. Use individual dry erase boards. As you display each problem for the class to solve, have kids write on their boards and hold them up for you to give immediate verbal feedback.
  5. Screencast. If you have iPads in your classroom, students can use a free app like Show Me to explain their thinking and record their work.

Simple strategies like these keep you and your students from feeling overburdened with worksheets, and help integrate test prep seamlessly into the more meaningful activities you do in class.

Ultimately, we teach students, not standards. You are more than a test score, and so are your students. Don’t wait for someone in your district or state to reiterate that: make it true in your daily practice!

Maintaining balance is impossible without a clearly defined vision for why you teach.[tweetthis]Maintaining balance is impossible without a clearly defined vision for why you teach.[/tweetthis]

Angela Watson is a National Board Certified Teacher with 11 years of classroom experience. In 2009, she turned her passion for helping other teachers into a career as an educational consultant based in Brooklyn, NY. As founder of Due Season Press and Educational Services, she's created 4 books, 2 webinars, a blog, podcast, curriculum resources, and conducts seminars in schools around the world.

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Vicki Davis

Vicki Davis is a full-time classroom teacher and IT Director in Georgia, USA. She is Mom of three, wife of one, and loves talking about the wise, transformational use of technology for teaching and doing good in the world. She hosts the 10 Minute Teacher Podcast which interviews teachers around the world about remarkable classroom practices to inspire and help teachers. Vicki focuses on what unites us -- a quest for truly remarkable life-changing teaching and learning. The goal of her work is to provide actionable, encouraging, relevant ideas for teachers that are grounded in the truth and shared with love. Vicki has been teaching since 2002 and blogging since 2005. Vicki has spoken around the world to inspire and help teachers reach their students. She is passionate about helping every child find purpose, passion, and meaning in life with a lifelong commitment to the joy and responsibility of learning. If you talk to Vicki for very long, she will encourage you to "Relate to Educate" or "innovate like a turtle" or to be "a remarkable teacher." She loves to talk to teachers who love their students and are trying to do their best. Twitter is her favorite place to share and she loves to make homemade sourdough bread and cinnamon rolls and enjoys running half marathons with her sisters. You can usually find her laughing with her students or digging into a book.

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Meghan May 23, 2015 - 11:06 am

Many times the teachers that are solely focused on helping students pass a specific standardized test are the teachers that fail their students. Students will learn through experiences and hands on learning more than they will by memorizing answers on a checklist and missing the concepts completely. Although their test scores might reflect perfect learning, they will not be able to apply their knowledge to a slightly different situation because all they have really done is master the technique of memorization. Listed in this blog are 5 tips that help teachers find their balance in helping students learn and score well on tests.

Managing your Mindset will help teachers to remain focused on that they really want. Setting a vision for yourself, your students, and your classroom as a whole before allowing yourself to get stressed out with test taking is the best way of doing this. Reminding yourself of your vision and why will keep the excitement for learning alive in your room. This, in turn, will allow the students to stay stress free and excited as well.

Motivating students is also a great way to avoid the stress of testing time. Trying to scare a small child into studying or making a certain grade on a test is not the type of motivation they need. Positive, encouraging words is the type of motivation that younger students need. Once they are encouraged, they will learn more willingly.

Taking the focus away from test taking does not mean taking away test taking as a whole. Students still need to be very aware of test taking skills and formats because they will be involved with those throughout the rest of their academic careers. Many teachers will hand out the same review sheets each morning or each week to their children, causing their children to relate it to something that is scary or boring. There are many ways to allow students to get experience with test taking skills and formats without doing the same thing each day. Group solving, partner solving, games, iPads, and hands on activities are all ways to incorporate skills and formats students need to be familiar and comfortable with.

“Ultimately, we teach students, not standards. You are more than a test score, and so are your students” was my favorite part of the blog post. I think that this statement is something teachers should cling to each day. The important thing is teaching students to love learning and want to continue their education, not relate school to something boring or what they hate.

Vicki Davis May 24, 2015 - 6:12 am

Well said. We want our students to love learning. I think Angela’s approach is very balanced and what you’ve said also makes sense. Thank you for taking time to write it!

Julie Hardin May 24, 2015 - 4:03 pm

Scores on standardized tests should not define how well a teacher can teach the curriculum. Teachers are faced with many obstacles everyday and it is up to them to overcome them and be the best teacher to their students.

If teachers go into their classrooms with a clear focus on making a difference in their students life, nothing else should matter. When teachers are focused it makes the learning environment more enjoyable for their students. Students are able to sense stressful situations and its important to not exhibit those during testing because testing will become stressful to their students.

Also, exhibiting how important testing is for students isn’t necessary. I still cringe to the sound of the word testing. While students should know the important of it, it should be a topic discussed daily.

Good post!


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