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Creating a Standardized Assessment Test: Practice Makes Perfect

By Meghan Everette on April 5, 2013
  • Grades: 1–2, 3–5, 6–8, 9–12

If you are going to bother doing something, do it well and make it worth your time. I take that mantra and apply it to almost everything in my classroom, and preparing for standardized tests is no different. Whether you love or hate the nature of high-stakes testing, it is a necessary evil until a better way to ensure equal evaluation of students comes along. Here is how my class attacks the tests head-on and how I ensure high levels of learning in the process.




Assessment Test Plan: Know Your Blueprint

Currently, states have different assessments and information available depending on where you live, but we are moving towards common assessments with the implementation of Common Core. No matter your assessment, there is a blueprint somewhere. Know exactly how long each test is, what the sections are, and how they are to be administered. Can your students use calculators on any one part? Blueprints, sometimes called “specs” or “specifications,” tell you exactly what skills will be tested and how many points each question is worth. They may include important details, like which questions require open-ended responses and what will not be included as well. Find your blueprint and know it inside and out. Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium offers potential blueprints for common assessments, and more definite blueprints will surface as Common Core assessments are created.


Ask the Right QuestionsSample Assessment Blueprint

Find sample tests and dissect them. Many times questions are asked in a very prescribed format. We take the sample books, examples from presentations, and any other test-prep material we can find and pull the question stems. Question stems are going to be the format you want to ask all your practice questions in. For example, I know that my students will be asked about author’s purpose. The question stem might say, “Why did the author most likely write this passage?” Knowing how the question will be asked allows me to create similar questions for my students. If the test is going to use italics instead of bold words, then so am I. If the test says “provide evidence,” then I’m not going to say “give examples.” I’m going to say exactly what the test does. Here is one example of the question stems I use in 4th grade English language arts.


Open-Ended Preparation

Assessments may include open-ended responses. These questions require students to write responses or show their work and reasoning. Again, we check the blueprint and figure out what questions could be asked in an open-ended way. Then, we find question stems that mirror those on sample tests. While we are learning throughout the year, we adapt test questions to this format so that students are used to writing their responses. We get out the rubrics and show students how to grade open-ended questions, so they know exactly what will be required. As we get closer to test time, students participate in a guided response before tackling a similar question on their own daily. Yes, I said daily.

Both reading and math open-ended questions are practiced each day throughout much of the year, so they are commonplace and students are ready to respond. I try to make it as easy as possible. For math, I took the sample questions and created four or five of each question, just changing the figures. Copied into binders, these sets can be used over and over without making excess copies! Critical Literacy: Enhancing Students’ Comprehension of Text is a great resource for developing great open-ended questions.

Students working on Writing

Assembling an Assessment Test

Once you know the number and type of each kind of question, and you have the wording down, you are ready to assemble your test. Make your test as much like Assessment Specificationsthe real format as possible. If your blueprint says that there are seven questions about double-digit multiplication and you know the different ways the question might be asked, then your assessment should also have seven questions asked in the same way. I have test “blanks” that I use. Our math and reading tests are given in the same format, with numbers going down the columns and each question in a box. I retype all my tests into this format so that it is familiar to the students.

Going back to the blueprint can also give clues about the answer document. We run sample documents provided by the state. If a response must be gridded, we get the exact grid. If answers are on lined paper, we use the same paper the test will have.


Taking Time to Test

My school has what we call “shutdowns.” A shutdown is basically a practice run for the real test. The test will start in the morning and run for a specific length of time. During that time, there is no movement in the hallways and all classes are testing the entire time. We prepare our assessments and documents ahead of time and proctor the test in the same way as will happen with the real test. My grade usually does reading one day and math the next, but that varies by grade level with some classes testing both subjects in one span. We start with short one or one-and-a-half hour tests every month or so early in the school year. As we move through the year, the frequency and time increase. By this point in the year, we are testing every eight days for up to two hours.

Working Hard on Class Assessment Boys Working on Assessment Test

Practice Makes Perfect

We don’t simply take tests and that’s that. After an assessment, my class reviews the test. How we review depends on the subject, and I try to change it up to keep everyone’s attention. I might run diagnostics, only spending focused time reviewing the questions we struggled with. I sometimes have students grade each other’s papers, but other times I grade them all and pull small groups to review specific skills. Fellow blogger Alycia has some great ways to keep up engagement during test prep. I reward for improvement and for focus during the test time, more than for final grades. The point? Students know how to answer next time and we hone in on skills that are weak with immediate feedback.


Final Analysis

The work is never done when preparing for theseWorking on Assessment Test Prep types of assessment tests. Throughout the year, we are conscious of how we teach and assess our students. When results come in, we spend data meetings highlighting students that fell below desired levels and figure out what skills to work on throughout the year. We take grade-level results and locate weak areas, making specific lesson plans to address those needs. If we only got two out of three points on an open-ended question, we figure out what type of question it might have been and formulate practices to help raise the score.


Is it all about the test? No. As good teachers, we are always looking for ways to move our students forward in all areas, not just on one test. The difference I see in “teaching to the test” and being well prepared is that my students have no surprises in format; they have experience with the types of questions they will be asked; and they have practice responding in writing so that others can read and understand their work. I know that they are better prepared because of the work I do behind the scenes to make sure everything we do has purpose and is written with intention.


How do you prepare for the tests? What resources do you use when making assessments? Do practice tests serve a purpose in your classroom?

Comments (18)

I love this idea! I am wondering if it could be changed a bit by having students create certain sections? I teach 5th grade Language Arts and thought it may be more fun, at the same time the kids will be learning the test from a different angle:)

For sure! When we were doing SAT testing, we had a language arts portion. I love the idea of kids making the test. We do smaller portions of that when kids write their own math problems. That's a great idea to have them make the test - especially in a grammar/writing situation!

I admire your attention to detail and commitment to helping your kids do well on required tests. I teach middle school kids and have them for less than five hours a week. It is hard to figure out time to teach AND prepare like you do in an elementary setting. I do use item specs and practice with them. Excellent information!

You are right - only having those 5 hours would make a huge difference. Sticking to the objectives and specs would be so important with limited time.

Wow - some of the critical commenters here are confusing fantasy with reality. The original poster isn't making the rules but rather giving actionable strategies for making the most of an admittedly flawed educational landscape. Good ideas from this poster as always (I've read several of hers before).

Thank you for being a reader! I think the reality is that education is judged by testing and whether we as teachers like it or not, that's what we are dealing with. I don't always think it is the best, but you can bet my kids will be prepared to show off how much they know!

I applaud your dedication to helping you prepare your students for their testing. For a student of any age to be expected to do well on a standardized test, a well-planned and thorough practice regimen are musts if the student is to have any idea what to expect and be able to focus, think clearly and test as well as possible.

A couple hours every week or so is hardly too much time spent on testing. It's lessons, it's learning, it's dress rehearsal. Playing an instrument growing up, I spent 30 minutes or more every single day, plus an hour a week at lessons and an hour every day in music class, not including the performances in concerts - and that was extracurricular. Why expect anything different from test preparation?

It's the same theory - you have to do anything at least 10 times to become comfortable with it, and in practicing with students regularly, they're learning what it takes to be prepared for testing, while at the same time any overwhelming anxiety about a high-stakes situation is reduced dramatically. That in turn creates a more meaningful experience for the student in the end, because they've learned a real life lesson about working hard to achieve a goal.

So is test-taking the be-all end-all of school? Obviously not. There are hundreds of hours spent in the classroom NOT testing, but learning, developing student-teacher relationships and so much more. But is test-taking an applicable life skill that teaches "practice makes perfect" and performance-based evaluation (who has a job that doesn't involve evaluations?) Absolutely.

Such a great point about job evaluations. What if the rest of the world were judged the way we judge our kids and teachers? And I think it is like another poster said about being prepared for a GRE or LSAT or any of those type of tests too; knowing how to prepare is crucial. Being a good student growing up, I was a bit out of luck when it came to classes I really had to study and prep for. I had to learn it myself! A great analogy with the musical instrument too. I played on drumline in college and we had 30-40 hours a week of practice for a single 10-minute performance each Saturday. Talk about prepping!

Wow! That is truly some sage advice. I can't wait to start implementing these ideas pronto!
Thank you for laying it all out in such an organized way!

Thanks for that!

I know your students are well prepared for the state test. I bet you are a fabulous teacher. I know just practicing sitting still that long takes several practice rounds!

That's the thing... it isn't meant to kill the kids. It is meant to ease test anxiety and make sure they have practice. Thanks!

"Test taking is NOT a life skill. Reading, writing, math, etc are life skills."
Working on well written open ended responses, and comprehending the text enough to answer the multiple choice questions ARE important life skills. Children who can not respond properly in a written manner are sure to fall behind. If you've ever read a note from a parent, an email regarding a business issue, or even a Facebook post that is difficult to comprehend, you know the importance of this skill. In my opinion, the more practice a student gets in an area, the less stressful it will be on them when the "real thing" arrives. How scared would you feel if you we're asked to take a driving test without practice on the road first? It would be overwhelming, and there would probably be careless mistakes made. Keep up the great work, it'll show in your results :)

Thank you so much for that! You are right. I think through preparing for the test, we are still giving our kids great practice in skills they need such as reading functional text, writing responses, and explaining their reasoning.

Why is this teaching to the test? Using state blueprints and formatting an assessment helps students prepare for tests. Teachers model close reading and annotating text as they prepare and these are college and career ready skills. It just makes sense to align blueprints and assessments. It also makes sense to assess to determine mastery. How many of us have taken classes to prepare for the GRE, the LSAT, or entrance tests for college? Modeling how to prepare for and take a test may be a life-long skill.

Exactly. I think if you were to have a dance recital, you'd practice and prepare while still teaching dance. If you were to have a football game, you'd have a scrimmage while still teaching sportsmanship and good technique. Knowing how to prepare, overcome anxiety, and do your best is not a bad thing. My point being, if you are going to make a practice, make it worth the time and effort by having the best practice possible!

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