Should I Teach My Students to Be Better Test Takers?


It’s that time again in Wisconsin, time for our yearly standardized test on which schools and students alike get graded.  Mind you, we test for 5th grade in October after only having taught them for 2 months.  Mind you we actually don’t get the results until February at the earliest, at which point we are then supposed to adjust our teaching according to said results.  Of course, all of this will change with the advent of the new test that is being created but that wont be of another year or more.

So why this post from a known anti-standardized testing teacher?  Well, because I wonder if my opposition to these tests and refusal to make them a big deal in the eyes of my students are hurting their test results?  I don’t give them pep talks, I don’t tell them how it can affect their lives, or mine for that matter.  I don’t tell them to do their very best because they should want to show everyone how much they know.  I do the practice one so that they know what the format is but I don’t teach testing strategies for days or weeks.  I don’t teach them what the test makers are probably looking for.  Instead we continue with our 5th grade exploration of learning and what makes us curious.  We spend time discussing and pushing our thinking.  We make time for genius hour and reflection.  We make time to cover the things we should in a meaningful manner that suits us as learners.  But still..

I do tell them that they are a snapshot of that moment in time.  I do tell them that they should try to figure it out as best as they can but that it is not something to be stressed about.  I know their abilities, I know their strengths, and more importantly I  know how to support their goals.  Sure, we have to have silence during the test and no one can leave for the bathroom, but when they feel they have given it their best shot, then they are free to read or to unwind.

Yet I cannot help but wonder should I be taking time to teach them better test strategies?  Should I stop what we are doing so they can spend time becoming better test takers?  Am  I robbing them of a skill they need to “survive” the rest of their education?  Should I be focusing on the gravity of this test and make them aware of how much it determines for our school?  Would they score better if they knew how much the test meant?  At this point, I am not sure anymore.  Should my personal beliefs be allowed to influence the way I teach?

13 thoughts on “Should I Teach My Students to Be Better Test Takers?”

  1. Hi Pernille. I totally understand your concerns and I feel the same way. We have a similar procedure when testing our students. But what is worse, teachers are mainly judged by the results of the tests. It’s understandable; schools need to show good results and the teachers are responsible for getting them, sometimes at any cost. But you can imagine how this affects the teachers’ self-esteem (if their students fail) and what kind of pressure it imposes on them. Not to mention that this kind of preparation kills creativity and steals away the time that could be spent on more meaningful tasks…

  2. Last year I taught a combo 3rd/4th grade class. My 3rd graders were “labeled” high achievers and my 4th graders were labeled “average to low performing students”. The week before our standardized testing, I did 1-2 mini lessons on test taking skills. The rest of the year was spent reading great books, writing about great books, and talking about great books. I knew in my gut this practice was helping to develop lifelong readers and writers. However, I still questioned myself as all around me teachers were “test prepping” their students year round.

    The results….my 3rd graders ALL received top scores. The 4th graders received high, average, and low scores. However, my 4th grade scores still showed significant “learning gains” when the scores were analyzed from one year to the next.

    My reflections…test prep doesn’t help. If you’re immersed in a classroom where reading and writing are valued and practiced then that is THE BEST TEST PREP you can give them.

  3. I think you are doing the right thing. My only suggestion would be to talk with them about the kinds of questions (how to eliminate answers in multiple choice etc) either on your practice test or in a few activities prior to. It seems to work for me.

  4. Pernille,

    One of the many things I love about you is your continual questioning of your practice. Your question is one that I have wrestled with for years. What is best for students? In the end I believe it is all about reflection and balance. We have to keep it in perspective.

    While testing is just a point in time and should never be considered a final judgement, in fairness to our students we must acknowledge that tests do exist and can be gate keepers. One thing we can do is teach students how to best manage this challenge. If we ignore and say it doesn’t matter we do them a disservice because it does effect them. If we overstate the value of tests we also do them a disservice: you can’t just do well on a test, life takes so much more. Students need to understand that tests do not define them but how they approach challenges in their life do. So we teach them to size up challenges and do their best when facing them. If they come up short, that is a lesson in itself. Do they let it define them, only in so far as to how they process the outcome.

    There is no perfect answer here. It is sticky. I hate those tests too, and we can work to improve/change the content, the purpose and how they impact students. However, they aren’t going away. We have to strike a balance.

    Thank you so much for sharing your thinking and inspiring others to do the same.

  5. I want to leave aside the immediate question of what you should do now. You’ve gotten great advise from fellow teachers. I want to ask how we can do better. I’m working better assessment techniques. Let’s brainstorm for a minute.

    Suppose you had a one page, interesting read. It could be fiction, it could be non-fiction. They read it and answer a few questions. Maybe short answer? My question is always, *how can we make the test measure what you want to achieve?* I think we can construct a test that makes them practice reading. And I think we can give out practices at home for students with a tablet, so that taking the test will feel just like doing daily homework.

    Where this concept gets tricky is in grading. As long as it’s short answer, no problem. But if it’s full sentence it’s really tough to grade automatically.

    If we can give the test on the tablets (and as I recall, you’re in a 1:1 school, right?) then you can have the grades back within a few milliseconds of the time the last student gets done. I would recommend a hybrid approach, where the content is measured by keyword, but the grammar is graded by the local teacher. In other words, for standardized testing the state gets what it wants, which is a measure of how well your students read, and you get what you want, which is fewer questions, with terrific content that is what you would want to do with them anyway.

    I’m actually working on things like this, so please, contact me with your ideas. Nothing would make me happy than to destroy the multiple choice test. And I think it’s totally doable.

    1. I am not 1 to 1 at all, but thank you for the suggestions. See, I don’t grade either, I give feedback to my students, so when we are faced with tests that don’t give us any feedback until many moths later it is hard to know what in the world they are even looking for.

  6. My question is related to something you briefly mentioned in your post – Genius Hour. I’ve just learned about this over the summer, and I am trying to figure out how to implement it in my classroom. Would you mind email me with a bit of general information about Genius Hour in you classroom? How much time do your kids spend on their projects? Do you let them decide what they want to study, how to study it, and what form the final piece takes? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this and how it works.
    Thank you!
    Are We There Yet?

  7. I believe teaching test-taking skills is absolutely necessary due to the high stakes testing world in which our students live. The key, however, is how we go about teaching these skills. We do a huge disservice to kids by using multiple test-prep passages and workbooks, or shutting down instruction to do “test blitz” a month before the state exam. Instead, we can immerse our students in authentic text and tasks each day. After they demonstrate their understanding of a concept, strategy, or skill in an authentic manner, and we celebrate their accomplishments, we can make a “standards-to-test format connection” with them, using modeling and think-alouds to show students how their new learning will be measured by traditional multiple choice questions that dominate our state exams. When we take five or ten minutes a few time a week for such a transfer activity, we’re actually helping students develop reasoning skills.

  8. So a motocross racer a volleyball player and a hockey player walk into a bar. At the bar was a race horse. They ask why the long face? …
    Yes! That is how they are evaluated. If we were talking to any of the above we would talk to them about what is important to them. For the horse it is winning races. At the end of the day for the race horse that and staying healthy is all that really matters.

  9. I refuse to “teach to the test.” I figure that what I do teach them should help them pass those tests. I’ve never had a problem with the majority of my class failing and they always show enormous growth. I had this discussion with a teacher today, we are robbing our young people of critical thinking skills, it’s scary!

  10. You’re doing just fine the way you are teaching them. Don’t question your practice its fine. All of this talk of college and career ready leads me to question how many people I know taking standardized tests for a living, or how many college students get tested yearly? Until our politicians understand we won’t test ourselves into educational excellence we saddled with taking them, but we don’t have to let them guide our instruction. Keep up the good work.

  11. I have always thought that high quality instruction trumps test-prep. I’ve even done a little research on the topic and found that even in the cases of extremely high stakes tests (ie high school exit exams), test prep really had very little impact, and actually caused students to resent testing even more. Kids get that learning is put on hold for test-prep, and they really don’t need it if they’ve been learning at high levels are year long. I think you are doing the right thing by ensuring that your students nudist and the format of the test, etc. so there are no surprises. I think putting too much pressure on kids to do well also creates undue anxiety for them which may prevent them from demonstrating what they really know.

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