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Five Ways to Make Standardized Test Prep Engaging

By Angela Bunyi on March 25, 2011
  • Grades: 3–5, 6–8

With state testing quickly approaching, my grade level decided to try out some new ways to review content across the curriculum. One idea that has received rave reviews from both students and parents is our weekly TCAPalon competitions. "TCAPalon" — a play on our state test's name and "triathlon" — allows our classes to compete academically with each other while receiving quality review instruction. Read on to learn how to turn standardized test prep into a team event, and to read about some tried and true test review methods. 

Photo: Students learn how to review using the "Great BamBunyi" method.


Five Ways to Make Standardized Test Prep Engaging

1. Take a Team Approach to Test Review 

Testing doesn't need to be anymore stressful than it already is. Using the "drill and kill" or "spray and pray" methods just adds stress — for both students and teachers. With this in mind, my grade level created the TCAPalon. TCAPalon competitions occur on the three Wednesdays before our state tests. Each of the teachers in our grade level is responsible each week for one leg of the TCAPalon. I, for example, am in charge of the math competition. Utilizing ThinkLink data for our grade level, I ranked our highest areas of need and offered a study guide to all students. My teaching peers did the same for their areas of content, social studies and science.

Once our students have the study guides, the studying begins! On Wednesday mornings, students rotate through the three classrooms in one-hour blocks for competition. The one-hour sessions include a review activity or game and a 15–20 minute independent assessment. After determining the overall average scores for the independent assessments, we declare the winner.

Awards are carefully considered, since we're all against using food for rewards, and extrinsic rewards in general. Some rewards include lunch with Captain TCAP, which is a teacher-aide dressed up in a cape and mask that students just adore. We are also creating a bulletin board to track our progress as we move closer to the "big" day. 

I like this type of review because

  • review content is broken up into manageable time chunks, allowing students to spread their review time out.
  • students approach test review with a team spirit, which leads to more students' studying prior to the event.
  • teachers have time to concentrate and teach specific skills with great care.
  • using the athlete analogy, students begin to understand the true value of practice and studying leading up to the day of competition.

2. Offer Immediate Feedback With Those Pesky A,B,C,D Test Questions

I am confident that you have an unhealthy supply of multiple choice standardized test prep booklets. Students do need some exposure to this format — in moderation and with modifications. For multiple choice practice, I suggest "pinch-it" cards. I recently attended a math workshop where this idea was presented, and I adapted it for multiple choice test practice. 

When having students answer multiple choice questions, it's best to give immediate feedback. Several schools have CPS clicker sets, which can be really fun, but this free method can be pulled out in a second and used over and over again. 

Directions: Print out the front and back side of the pinch-it cards on card stock and laminate. Students simply "pinch" their answer, so that you can immediately assess them. Pinch-it cards also give students the freedom to select an incorrect answer without embarrassment. 

3. Incorporate Stress Relief Strategies Into Your Classroom Routine

Minutes before our state writing assessment last year, our school counselor came into the room and guided us through some relaxing breathing techniques with dimmed lights and soothing music in the background. It really eased the jitters and changed the testing atmosphere. It does make a difference.

Every day, I dim our lights and play classical music as part of our morning routine. As a result, I frequently hear remarks about how mellow and relaxed our class is. However, there are other strategies that will help lower anxiety levels in your classroom, such as:

  • Aromatherapy: Rosemary, lavender, and vanilla have garnered the most attention as anxiety-reducing scents.
  • Peppermint: Excellent for frazzled nerves and a perceived treat for students.
  • Yoga: On rainy days our counselor has offered yoga sessions. It was a real eye opener watching which students couldn't relax or close their eyes: those that couldn't close their eyes were consistently my prime stress-prone students. This may be helpful to know before testing occurs.
  • Lighting and Music: Although it is helpful to dim lights and play music in the background before a test, make sure you don't do this WHILE you conduct test review. Why? You want the environment to mimic the real setting, and music is not an option during state testing. 

4. Harness the Power of the Internet

Do you remember the old television show Press Your Luck? It was the show where contestants shouted, "Big money, big money, no whammies!" If you have a SMART Board, then you have access to hundreds of test review templates that make learning fun — including "Press Your Luck" — allowing you to create and present a game in thirty minutes or fewer. If you don't have a SMART Board, there are still plenty of Internet games and sites that help with test review. Here are a few I recommend:

  • JeopardyLabs: I wrote about this in my post on identifying sources. It takes a few minutes to create a Jeopardy board, and students can access the link later for more review.
  • Scholastic's StudyJams: I still can't believe this resource is now free. By and large my students prefer StudyJams over BrainPOP. This is an excellent site for reviewing math and science content.
  • Internet4Classrooms: With this site you just type in the learning standard, and state and grade level specific activities are at your disposal. An excellent resource for both teaching content and reviewing it. 
  • IXL: Our school has a license for IXL, but anyone can access the site for up to thirty minutes for free. Our students utilize it, schoolwide, for practice on specific math skills. Teachers can see how students are doing and how much time has been logged. Some grade levels compete to answer a certain number of questions or log the most hours.
  • Punctuation Paintball: This is a fun version of the typical drill and kill grammar practice. Students get a sentence to correct, and after they select a convention, they use the paintball gun to splatter the word with the correction. My 5th grade students seem to enjoy it as much as my 3rd graders did.

5. Morning Study Sessions

I wrote about this in depth two years ago. I offer before-school study sessions in the two weeks leading up to our state testing, and the parents provide breakfast. You can read my post describing how this works and offering a few other test prep resources, including our version of Johnny Carson's "Carnac the Magnificent" skit and test survival kits.


What helpful resources or activities do you utilize in your classroom to make test review engaging and anxiety-free? Please share!

As always, you are welcome to visit our classroom site anytime.


Comments (10)


Great questions. I am going to respond here, but I hope you don't mind that I am going to copy and paste your questions and my response in the most recent blog as well. It will help new readers with answering questions like you have asked.

Anchor Charts- What I did was conduct guided reading lessons during the additional 30 minute slot in the afternoon. The following day, during our literacy block, I would have a parent come in to revisit the book and jot down notes on large chart paper. As you could see in the video, the group was creating their own notes, however, this was after months of modeled meetings (probably May for the clip you are referring to).

Meetings with Students- Small group and individual meetings are important, but I lean more towards individual conferences for true growth. Because of this I meet with students once a week for an in-depth individual conference (about 5 a day) and guided reading meetings once a week with a follow-up with a parent.

Calmness- This is the number one, by far, most asked question when visitors come to my room- "How do you get them to be so calm and actually do what you ask them to?" I almost cringe each time because I still have come up with a good answer for this. This is the only strength I have that I don't know how to explain. I'm not sure how I create this each year except that I am HUGE on modeling certain behaviors at the beginning of the year. HUGE. I am also very upfront with my students about my feelings on extrinsic rewards and the damaging message they send to students. This combined with my very calm demeanor during the literacy block really helps. And the videos above show both third and fourth grade. Most are fourth, but the mini-lesson is fourth and the conference with commentary that shows much of the class during a lesson and our literacy block are from third.

I hope that helps. If it doesn't, please ask away. I am here for you. :)


Hello again, I watched all of them and took notes. I have a few questions though. When you have the students create their own anchor charts, do they do this after they have read independently or partner read? How often do they do this a week? How often a week do you meet with students (reading or writing) or do you make sure you meet with all students per week and start again next week? One more thing, I was impressed with the calmness and attention your group had during the fiction mini lesson. That was third grade? If so, how do you establish that. I know it must be from the beginning but do you do mini lessons on proper social skills in class too? Sorry so long!

Have you looked at my latest post? I actually created it because of your questions here. I have 17 video clips that should help give you a feeling of what goes on in our classroom. I hope it helps!


Thank you. That would be great. I have family in Memphis and Knoxville also. For now, I am going to watch all the videos (So many but so nice of you to share these) with a notepad! Have a great weekend!

You're welcome...and if you are ever in Tennessee you can look me up. Former Scholastic blogger, Victoria, did that last year while making a road trip from Florida. We met up for brunch in Nashville. It was nice.



Thank you for posting the videos! I am out of state (FL) and I was considering the trip too if it meant I could learn new ways to teach reading and writing. Especially in a way that the kids will enjoy. I will watch and take notes for the time being. Thanks again!


Of course. Three years ago (at another school), I counted over 100 teacher visitors to our room. Some came from out of state even. Now, the school I teach at is across the street from the second largest university in our state. Visitors are rather common for everyone. Luckily, however, numbers have been low this year for visitations. With some large scale changes, it has been a tiny blessing to me.

With all that rambling...if you are nearby, feel free to contact me for setting up a time to spend with us. Anyone is more than welcome.

If you are not nearby, here are some videos I've made:

http://www.mrsbunyi.com/videos.html (you can find an actual video of me teaching an entire lesson, and entire conference, and entire share session- 3 videos).

Some others:

Reading/Writing Conference Video: http://blogs.scholastic.com/top_teaching/2010/01/reading-and-writing-conferences-taking-a-blended-approach.html

Overview video(includes reader's/writer's workshop): http://blogs.scholastic.com/top_teaching/2009/09/come-on-in-my-virtual-open-house.html

I hope that helps...


I hope you get to read and respond to this. I love your ideas and wish I had time to incorporate them. I am a first year 4th grade teacher and sometimes a ball of nerves :) I just wanted to know if you or even Beth Newingham allow visitors to your classroom. I would love to see the actual day, reading or writing workshops in action in order to prep for next year. I know she has a mini video but it's short and it looks great and I don't know if you have a video of yours yet. Thanks!

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