Mention the words "standardized tests" to a group of teachers in the lounge and you're bound to hear as much grumbling as when you announce "pop quiz" to bleary-eyed students on Monday morning. But no matter how long the grumbling lasts, the reality remains the same: High stakes standardized tests are here to stay and the job of helping students perform to the best of their ability falls to individual teachers. 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 effective test prep, Scholastic consulted numerous educators 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.
1. 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 (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 site, 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.
"You need to know the balance so you can focus on the most heavily covered topics," explains Scott Mandel, a sixth grade English and history teacher at Pacoima Middle School in Los Angeles, and author of Improving Test Scores: A Practical Approach for Teachers and Administrators (Zephyr Press © 2006).
2. Plan ahead so you can pace yourself.
Since standardized testing often takes a few months before the school year ends, "you absolutely have to do advance planning to ensure that you cover the topics that will be tested before the test happens," says Mandel, who recommends using a planning calendar and a list of the content areas tested to develop a timeline for the entire school year. "Map out the curriculum by the approximate number of weeks you need to cover key topics and use it as a guide."
"It's all 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 later in the year."
To keep her language arts students on track for Missouri's assessments, Cate Sanazaro, a seventh grade teacher at Cuba Middle School (Cuba, MO), 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.
3. 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/social studies and math/science.
For example, explains Powell, "One way math teachers and science teachers can work together is by pairing a math chapter on scientific notation with a science unit on astronomy."
When possible, Mandel assigns novels in his language arts class to enhance his history lessons. His students have read the The Crucible by Arthur Miller when learning about the Salem witch trials and Across Five Aprils by Irene Hunt when discussing the Civil War.
When it comes to assigning research papers, Mandel consolidates teaching time by discussing research skills during his English classes and then assigning a research paper in history class. He gives the one 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.
4. Look for opportunities to link content within subject areas.
In language arts, it's easy enough to augment 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. You can also combine vocabulary practice and writing skills by having students create short stories using the week's vocabulary words. In math, related concepts like decimals and percentages can often be taught at the same time.
5. Teach critical thinking skills.
No matter what subject is your specialty, teaching kids 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.
6. 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 to explain thematic coming of age issues.
Colorful posters and timelines are also effective tools in helping students absorb information nuggets. An eye-catching explorers timeline that includes a blurb on the Lewis and Clark Expedition might prove useful to students if the test is in March and you don't get to the full discussion until May.
7. 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 seventh grade science teacher at Gompers Junior High School 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 seventh and eighth grade teacher at Southern Wells Junior/Senior High School (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.
8. 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 Midland 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?"
Ultimately, teachers who incorporate test prep into the curriculum on an ongoing basis don't see it as an infringement on teaching time. They see it as an integral part of meeting standards and preparing students for success in school and in life.