At this point in the school year, it's easy to think you’ve faced all your major "firsts" as a new teacher. However, another big challenge is just around the corner. Spring is the season of standardized tests, and the job of helping students perform to the best of their ability falls largely to you. Not an easy task, especially when there's so much content to cover and the school day is already cramped.
For advice on how to find time for test prep, the New Teacher Survival Guide consulted teachers nationwide. Their resounding message is to incorporate test prep into the natural flow of your curriculum and day-to-day instruction. Here are some tips on how to do that in the next few months and as you plan ahead for your second year of teaching.
- Find out what the test emphasizes and use it to plan your curriculum. "It's important for teachers to understand the test in as much detail as possible," says Sara Davis Powell, Ph.D., who chairs the education department at Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina and wrote Super Strategies for Succeeding on Standardized Tests (Scholastic, © 2000). If you don't already receive test guideline information from your school's administration, you can usually get it online at your state's department of education website, or by analyzing older versions of the test.
The guidelines typically list standards covered and the topic breakdown in percentages. For instance, if the grammar portion of the language arts component of your state's test is 40% sentence structure, 30% parts of speech, 20% punctuation, and 10% clauses, then you can use this insight in planning grammar lessons through the year.
- Plan ahead so you can pace yourself. Since standardized testing typically takes place a few months before the school year ends, you should do some advance planning to ensure that you cover the topics that will be tested before the test happens. Scott Mandel, an English and history teacher in Los Angeles, and author of Improving Test Scores: A Practical Approach for Teachers and Administrators (Corwin Press, © 2008), recommends mapping out the curriculum by the approximate number of weeks you need to cover key topics and using it as a guide.
"It's about long-term planning," agrees Powell. "You may love teaching the American Revolution but you can't let your passion for the American Revolution take up so much time that it gets in the way of teaching the Industrial Revolution."
To keep her language arts students on track for Missouri's assessments, Cate Sanazaro, a teacher in Cuba, Missouri, took time out one summer to develop a notebook that includes all the lesson plans she has created to teach students the core curriculum as outlined by the state's Grade Level Expectations (GLE). "Once I started putting the notebook together, it was easy to see how the entire year flowed," says Sanazaro.
- Incorporate standardized test formats into chapter and unit tests, as well as daily/weekly exercises. "The text book series we use has test-prep type questions in each chapter," points out Shelley Woodall, a teacher in Joliet, Illinois. "I put them on PowerPoint slides and use them as bell work throughout the year. I also use practice questions supplied by the state." Doing this makes test prep a normal part of the routine rather than a stressful once- or twice-a-year event. So does modeling portions of your chapter and unit tests on standardized tests. Martha Ray, a teacher in Poneto, Indiana, posts test-prep tips on the board each day. For reinforcement, she has students copy the tips in a test prep journal, which they use for review as test time nears.
- Get students used to showing their work and using test-taking skills. "When reading text and answering questions in any subject area, students need to be able to support their ideas with examples from the text," says Michele Higgins, a former middle school social studies and math teacher who now teaches at an elementary school in Paramus, New Jersey. "I encourage students to do this by using a highlighter....This forces them to look back into the text and find what part of the text helped them answer the question."
Similarly, during classroom discussions, she encourages students to refer back to the text by asking such questions such as, "What information from the story helped you draw those conclusions?" and "What text connections did you make to help you answer the question?"
- Teach critical thinking skills. No matter what subject is your specialty, teaching students to think critically is a key aspect of doing well on standardized tests. Mandel encourages teachers to use Bloom's Taxonomy to create class discussion and assessment questions that develop students' higher-order thinking skills, mainly evaluating, synthesizing, analyzing, and applying.
- Develop cross-curricular lessons and activities. "It's important to fuse the curriculum whenever possible," says Powell, pointing out that cross-curricular connections often move students through the material more quickly and meaningfully. The easiest cross-curricular connections are language arts with social studies and math with science. For example, explains Powell, "One way middle school math teachers and science teachers can work together is by pairing a math chapter on scientific notation with a science unit on astronomy." Elementary school teachers can make similar connections, such as teaching math lessons on median, mean, and average with a weather unit about temperature and rainfall. To link language arts and social studies, choose historical fiction that aligns with your social studies lessons. The long list of possible match-ups includes:
- The Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder with America's expansion westward
- The Magic Tree House series and research guides by Mary Pope Osborne with events, eras, and cultures as varied as the Vikings, Pilgrims, Medieval times, the Amazon rainforest, and ancient life in Greece and Egypt
- The more than 50 Dear America and My Name is America books that cover 12 periods of American history in a diary/journal format. Use the Royal Diaries series to link language arts and events and characters from world history.
- Any book by Jean Fritz with lessons on American History, especially the American Revolution
- Number the Stars by Lois Lowry with lessons on World War II and the Holocaust.
- Grade one project for multiple classes. When it comes to assigning research papers to older students, Mandel consolidates teaching time by discussing research skills during his English classes and then assigning a research paper in history class. He gives the paper two grades. "One grade is for the history content and the other is for the mechanics, expression, and research skills taught during English class," says Mandel.
- Look for opportunities to link content within subject areas. In language arts, you can combine vocabulary practice and writing skills by having students create short stories using the week's vocabulary words. It's also easy to enhance classroom instruction on figurative language by having students identify examples of metaphors, similes, and personification in the journals they write about their outside reading selections. In math, related concepts like decimals and percentages can often be taught at the same time.
- Use media tools to boost instruction and provide a quick overview if time runs short. Today's students are so media-savvy that Sanazaro doesn't hesitate to use movies to clarify literary concepts in her language arts classes.
"If a skill on the test is to recognize the use of foreshadowing, then we will view a film that offers several examples," she explains. Her students can usually identify 20 instances of foreshadowing in the movie The Westing Game, based on the book by Ellen Raskin. She also uses film versions of Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo and Hoot by Carl Hiaasen.
Colorful posters and timelines are also effective tools in helping students absorb information nuggets. An eye-catching explorer timeline that includes a blurb on the Lewis and Clark Expedition might prove useful to students if the test is in April and you don't get to the full discussion until May.
Ultimately, if you incorporate test prep into the curriculum on an ongoing basis you won't see it as an infringement on teaching time. You'll see it as an integral part of meeting standards and preparing students for success in school and in life.