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Holding On to Our Beliefs in a Time of Test Prep

By Julie Ballew on April 9, 2013
  • Grades: 3–5

In many schools in many states across the country, April marks the beginning of testing season. Texas is no different. We just wrapped up our first round of tests, and we have another week-long round at the end of the month. Our 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade students are actively preparing to “show what they know” on our state assessment. It’s an exhausting time for everyone involved. If you work in a school (or love someone who does), you certainly know what I mean. Perhaps the trickiest of all balancing acts is ensuring that we are adequately preparing kids for the test without losing sight of everything we know about good instruction. After all, even during testing season, we are still preparing them for life.

Holding On to What We Know

Our 3rd graders will take the test for the first time this year, so a big part of their preparation is familiarizing students with the format of a standardized test. In reading, students tend to look at a passage, see that it’s formatted much differently than the books they typically read, and forget everything they know about processing texts. The 3rd grade team at my school is using a unique approach to helping students learn to navigate these reading passages. They have done so much work with book clubs this year, and they’ve seen great conversations bloom in these small groups that gather around a text. Instead of throwing this out in the name of test preparations, they have their students continue to work in book clubs, with a passage as their common text. The teachers begin each day with a mini lesson, as all reading workshops do. This is typically a reminder of a good strategy for navigating reading passages. Students then read the passage and meet with their club to discuss it. They discuss the genre, the main idea or theme, and the author’s purpose. They grow ideas about the passages through conversation, just as they’ve done all year. After a few days of thinking and talking together, students work on the questions independently.

2 boys working in a club to discuss a reading passage   4 students working in a club to discuss a reading passage

The teachers meet with each group throughout the week to listen to their conversations and help them make connections between passages and the books they’re used to reading. At the end of the week, students try their hand at a passage and the questions independently.

Thoughts From the Teachers

I asked the 3rd grade teachers to give me some input on the work they’re doing. Rather than paraphrase, I'm happy to share exactly what they told me:

“I’m very proud of the work that we do to prepare for the test because it’s the thinking that they are used to doing every single day in class.  We are just practicing their deep thinking with a passage.”
~Leslie Cottrell


“We are instilling in our kids that we do the same thinking that we do every day in books and articles it’s just in a different format.”
~Angie Sanders


"This work allows the students to see the link between an everyday book and reading passages."
~Breana May


“We’re not changing the format of our lessons.  It’s still a mini lesson, and they go off to practice in their book clubs. As readers, we just want them to know how to think while they are reading. We are setting them up to be lifelong thinkers.”
~Georgina Benavides

Short-term test preparations often increase anxiety, and this can be counterproductive. We are doing our best to hold on to our beliefs about the real-life reading work we want kids to do, even as we prepare them for this busy testing season.

What beliefs do you want to hold on to in a time of test-prep frenzy? Please share in the comments below!

Comments (9)

I am so glad to hear that you have encountered classrooms and teachers that are holding on to the idea that we are preparing students for life, not just for state exams. In many states, this is a huge stressor for both teachers and students. It is uplifting to hear the reports from the various teachers that you cited, as not all teachers are this positive or able to refrain from solely teaching to the test, unfortunately. You have brought up many good literacy ideas and as one of the teachers mentioned, it is important to keep in mind that we are instilling values in our students to love learning and become life-long readers and thinkers. In terms of literature, it can be very beneficial to tell students that these tests simply contain passages of different literacy formats, but the concepts are the same in terms of comprehension, critical thinking responses, etc. As teachers, we must simply do our best to teach these literacy strategies and practices for our students to become successful readers and writers, and enjoy doing so. Thank you for your insight and positive information!

Thank you so much! I'm so proud of the work in these classrooms, and the kids are doing really well!

I love this idea. I work with a 5th grade language arts class and feel this idea would be perfect for them. I would like to implement literacy workshops next year and will definitely use this closer to testing time. Do you know if your 5th graders have used this idea and how it worked with them?

Fifth grade hasn't tried this approach yet, but it could definitely work with older students!

Wow! What a great way to address test prep. Your students are comfortable with their daily literacy routines, and will have this same comfort when faced with the test. This is a very supportive approach to what could be a stressful event in the life of eight year olds. Love it!

Thanks, Debbie. These teachers have worked hard to make sure their students are prepared without derailing every routine they've had in place all year. :)

I am so tired of the schools ONLY teaching to the TEST. I just heard we don't teach history anymore in elementary school because it's NOT on the "test" FCAT sucks. We can't have a garden yet because the teacher is too busy teaching I guess to the FCAT and gardening isn't on the FCAT!! Really!! What happened to JUST teaching??

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