Taking tests is anxiety-provoking for many people including our students. Standardized tests or state assessments seem to increase the stress around a situation with which some students (and teachers) already struggle. As with many things that are anxiety-producing, the keys seem to be preparation, practice, and perspective. Help your students feel prepared and confident for the test by creating authentic practice activities and providing a chance for them to preview the tools and types of questions they’ll encounter. Help them put things into perspective by discussing the test in a “big picture” way, and help them to feel relaxed and mindful to reduce anxiety about something that’s important, but not worth mental distress.
Let’s Talk Vocabulary
Studies show that meaningful repetition and connection is needed for students to actually learn vocabulary. Our language is rich and complex, filled with similar words that have shades of meaning that many students, especially those with learning difficulties, may struggle to grasp. Falling back onto simple words that your students can spell and are familiar with might put them in their comfort zone, but it’ll cause them to be at a disadvantage when testing time comes. Vocabulary that is memorized by rote is not deeply embedded in student schema and might create a rigid and inflexible understanding. That is why starting early in the year introducing a multitude of GREEK AND LATIN ROOTS AND AFFIXES should be a daily part of your routine. Work with students to find multiple ways to use words in authentic ways. Introducing a word once or twice will not cut it, so incorporate vocabulary-building in writing, read alouds, independent reading, and wherever else you can find time in your busy day. When teaching Greek and Latin roots and affixes, make sure to use a spiral review at the end of each unit to keep reminding students to help deeply embed those words.
So what do you do if testing is right around the corner? Review the list of words by posting the anchor charts (more on anchor charts below) around the room, handing out study cards, and playing games with them.
In addition to creating robust vocabulary with authentic reading and writing opportunities, it’s important to help students learn test-specific academic vocabulary. For example, do your students know the difference between analyze, evaluate, describe, and explain? What about citing, implying, inferring, or alluding? The fact is, these words will come up on a variety of text-based questions and many adults still struggle to accurately define the terms in order to provide the necessary answers. TEXT-BASED QUESTIONS are difficult enough without leaving your students wondering about the terms the test uses. They need their brain power to tackle those questions! Teach academic terms used in testing explicitly and provide many opportunities to practice. An anchor chart of frequently-used testing vocabulary may come in handy. Once students master the different kinds of vocabulary, they will have more confidence to answer questions.
- Anchor Charts/Notebooks: Anchor charts create a focal point with a quick breakdown of concepts, terms, and skills our students will need. Throughout the year, you’ll teach much of the content found naturally on standardized tests and it’s likely that you’ll document some of your work with anchor charts. If you don’t use INTERACTIVE NOTEBOOKS, have students make mini-copies of the anchor charts in their own subject notebooks and use them when they’re independently working. The notebooks provide a wonderful reference and can be used to review different skills. When test time comes, you’ll have to remove or cover any of the anchor charts displayed in your room, but the frequent repetition will stick with the kids. Not only that, but leaving the anchor charts up while covered can provide a sense of familiarity that sparks recall and relieves anxiety.
- Group practice: Review your content and skills with interactive games for the whole group or small groups. Whether it a jeopardy-type game or basketball review, it will refresh their minds to what they learned throughout the year. Working in small groups making group decisions helps students study without putting too much pressure on them. Students who might not know a particular skill will have the opportunity to listen to their classmates’ discussions and answers.
- Standards: Reviewing the standards. Make sure you have covered all the standards for each subject. Get out a list of your standards or checklists and see if there are any areas that your students may not have a solid understanding. Then provide some extra review. For example, if you are reviewing reading standards, use READING SKILLS PASSAGES AND QUESTIONS to review each skill.
Teach Text Evidence
When students are prepared to dive deep into a paragraph or article to find answers within the text, answering text-based questions during a standardized test is less intimidating. Whether you use the ACE or RACE method, students will have the tools they need to find answers within a text. Use the strategies from this blog: HOW TO TEACH TEXT EVIDENCE. Then find out what tools students will have available to them during the test. Is it paper and pencil? Can they use a highlighter? Is it computerized? Do they have access to highlighting? From there, you can better instruct your students how to take these strategies and use them during the test.
Depending on the student population you have and the test you’ll be proctoring, you might be using a calculator that your students are not familiar with. Even if your students are great at mathematical operations, many kids (and adults!) have begun to rely on their phone calculators. Practice some sample mathematics problems with your students starting well in advance of the test, making sure to use the type of calculator they’ll be using during testing. This will help them avoid the last-minute confusion and panic that could come from using an unfamiliar device.
Control the Environment
Standardized tests make some teachers and students feel powerless, as they have no say over what’s on the test or the rules they must use to administer it. If you have a population with special needs, you may know that they’re being asked to take a test that’s at “grade level” but not reflective of their actual level. Accommodations and modifications can help your students with IEPs and 504s, but you can help everyone by controlling your environment. Studies show that young children to elderly adults learn best and retain more information in a familiar environment. Weeks in advance, work out how you’ll arrange desks for testing and which students might leave for small group testing. Have students slowly get used to any changes they’ll experience for the test. Advocate to keep your most anxious or needy learners in their original classrooms if possible. Additionally, having students take note of which anchor charts and motivational posters are on the wall can be helpful, too. Not only may it spark recall, even when they’re removed or covered, but you can pair it with a grounding technique for when students get overwhelmed. For that grounding technique and other mindfulness tips, look at our next suggestion.
Remember this formula! What was that trick? Wait, is it B or D? Questions and information are likely to logjam in your students’ minds during testing. The fact that schedules may be different, rooms may be switched around, and all the teachers seem to be extra concerned is off-putting, too. Even the most prepared, well-educated, confident students can fall prey to the jitters of high-stakes testing. One way you can help your students is to include calming mindfulness activities throughout the year and increase them in the weeks leading up to the test. Make sure you include breaks for mindfulness during the testing window, as well. Not only will it help your students relax and focus, it may also boost their test scores! We’re not kidding, there are now entire companies devoted to using mindfulness to help students boost their scores, deliver their thesis, and pass entrance exams! For your classroom, try deep breathing, calming nature music, relaxing while watching an on-screen aquarium, or the 3-3-3 grounding technique. The 3-3-3 grounding technique is especially great for students who are already starting to experience heightened anxiety. Have them stop, pause in their testing and identify three things they can hear, three things they can see, and three things can feel. It will help them reconnect with the world around them and remind them that they are in a familiar place, in control of their bodies and the situation.
This may be the most important tool in your kit. Depending on your school, high-stakes testing can command a lot of attention. Some families pile on pressure because they set a lot of store by test scores. However, Harvard Graduate School of Education has pointed out in their article, “When Testing Takes Over,” (2017) that an over-emphasis on testing can really be harmful to education in general. Teachers can fall prey to “teaching to the test” and spending a disproportionate amount of time in their day on “test prep” that’s not authentic. Teachers and students need to place high-stakes testing in perspective. A score is only one piece of data and studies have shown that many factors can influence it. Not all of those factors relate to student abilities, but are perhaps tied to background, focus, anxiety, tiredness, or simply missing breakfast!
In short, put testing into perspective for yourself, your students, and their families. Testing is not the end-all, be-all. It should never be used to determine your worth as a person or to limit your potential. If you don’t do well on a certain test, it means that you now know what you need to work on to improve your skills. If you ace it, congratulations. Maybe your knowledge can be used to help others. (Obviously, as teachers, we know that test scores will drive our instruction. Areas where your class is struggling mean you need new strategies, not a new career!)
So, as testing approaches, remind your students: This is one score in a lifetime of scores and opportunities to show how great you are! We’re betting that if you put these things in perspective, test-prep and testing itself will be a much smoother ride!
I hope you found some useful tips to use for testing time!
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Beck, I. L., McKeown, M. G., & Kucan, L. (2013). Bringing words to life: Robust vocabulary instruction. Guilford Press.
Shanahan, T. (2005). The National Reading Panel Report. Practical Advice for Teachers. Learning Point Associates/North Central Regional Educational Laboratory (NCREL).