Let's face it: Standardized tests are a fact of life. They remain a mainstay in most districts largely because of the comparative information they provide — information that too often is used alone to judge school, classroom, and individual performance. Ideally, standardized tests would be only one part of the overall assessment system. But until that day, we must make sure our students have the skills they need to ace standardized tests.

Preparing kids for tests doesn't have to mean drills. In our work, we make explicit connections between good test-taking practices and good general-learning practices. Here, we share some of the strategies and ideas that have grown out of our efforts. In this article you'll find:


Three Surefire Strategies for Reading Comprehension

A language-rich classroom, where students engage in regular guided and independent reading, is the ideal context for developing the skills needed to perform well on standardized tests. The following ideas work well every day, but they also come in handy at test time.

1. Encourage Purposeful Reading

We constantly emphasize reading for purpose. We want our students to know why they're reading what they're reading — for pleasure? to find information? — and to tailor their reading strategies accordingly.

We want students to be purposeful readers of standardized tests, too. To accomplish that, we don't mince words. We tell students that the reason they are reading passages is to answer questions so that they can perform well on the test. As such, students should know as much as possible about the questions prior to reading the passage.

Teaching Tip: On practice tests, encourage students to read, or at least skim, the questions before they read the passage. Then, while reading the passage, they should keep those questions in mind and underline words and phrases that might help them home in on the correct answer.

2. Cover All Kinds of Questions

To prepare students for the kinds of items they'll see on the test, we ask them a variety of questions about their reading. Our questions are meant to enhance comprehension and promote a range of interpretations — literal, inferential, personal, and so on.

However, just asking the right kinds of questions isn't enough; it's important to explain them as well. Acclaimed educator Taffy Raphael suggests teaching these question-and-answer relationships that are common in standardized reading tests.

  1. "Right There" Questions: The answer to these questions is right there in the passage. To find it, students recall information from or refer back to one place in the passage. Example: "Who gave John the dog?"
  2. "Think and Search" Questions: Students can also find the answer to these questions by using their memories or looking back at the passage. However, the answer is usually in more than one place. Students need to assemble information for the answer. Example: "What was the same about every dog in the story?"
  3. "Author and You" Questions: These questions are often the toughest because they can't be answered just by reading the passage. Students need to use what they already know, plus what they learn from the passage, to answer. Example: "How did John probably feel when he found the dog?"

Teaching Tip: You can build awareness of these questions by having students use different colored pens on practice tests. Students should circle:

  • "Right There" questions in green. Green means go directly to the passage to find the answer.
  • "Think and Search" questions in yellow. Yellow means use caution — look in more than one place to find the answer.
  • "Author and You" questions in red. Red means stop and think about what the passage says and what you already know before you answer.
3. Teach Text Structure

Lessons on story organization, compare and contrast, cause and effect, and other text structures are important parts of both literacy training and test preparation.

Many test passages are written in a standard format; understanding that format will give students a leg up in reading passages and locating answers. You've probably seen slow test takers who, for each question, reread a passage from the beginning until they come across an answer. Students need to be more efficient than that.

Teaching Tip: After reading a story passage with a clear beginning, middle, and end, have students guess which parts will contain the answers to comprehension questions. Help students see the following patterns:

  • Answers about when and where the story takes place are often found at the beginning.
  • Answers about a problem in the story are usually found in the middle.
  • Answers about how the problem was resolved are frequently found at the end.
  • Knowing where to look will save students valuable time.


Four Tried-and-True Tactics for Math

Math test items assess students' computation and measurement skills, number sense, and ability to reason. In addition, problem-solving items ask students to apply skills in context. A math curriculum that emphasizes investigations, higher-order thinking, and conceptual development lays a strong foundation for learning in general and preparing for tests in particular.

1. Make Word Problems a Priority

Students generally have difficulty applying their existing skills effectively in new contexts, such as standardized tests. This problem may be due, in part, to the fact that those skills were initially learned in isolation. The solution lies in breaking the end-of-chapter-exercises mind-set and integrating word problems creatively.

Teaching Tip: Weave word problems into your curriculum by having students look for quantifiable situations in the environment, literature, or current events. Then ask students to write word problems based on those situations. It's also important to familiarize students with test-like problems, so give them samples from old tests to solve, critique, and rewrite.

2. Stress Number Sense

Without number sense, students make errors because they have a hard time judging whether their answers are reasonable. Emphasizing number sense involves dealing with numbers in context, visualizing quantities, and recognizing the relationships between quantities — in other words, concepts common to standardized tests.

Teaching Tip: Investigations such as finding where, how, and in what context numbers are reported in the newspaper, or comparing the area of a tennis court to a football field, help students quantify their world and see the usefulness of numbers.

3. Focus on Estimation

Estimation is a real-life skill that pays off when it comes to tests. However, students sometimes fail to develop estimation skills because they're fixated on 100 percent accuracy. When asked to estimate an answer, we've seen students solve the problem exactly and then round their answers off to make it seem like an estimate!

Teaching Tip: You can develop estimation skills by giving "flash quizzes." Using an overhead projector, flash a math problem, such as 367 + 228, on the screen and have students estimate the answer without any written computations. Grade the quiz together by asking students to determine a reasonable range of estimates for each problem.

4. Emphasize Mental Math

Mental math involves tapping into students' natural way of doing mathematics. Research shows that children develop their own methods for problem solving, which may not always match how we teach. For example, children tend to solve double-column addition problems from left to right mentally, despite the fact that the traditional paper-and-pencil method requires them to work from right to left. Personal strategies like this exist for all operations.

Teaching Tip: By encouraging mental-math strategies, you'll be addressing tests' heavy emphasis on computation. Have students share their strategies with classmates, but remember: What works well for one student may not work for another.


Teaching Format Fundamentals

The mere sight of a bubble answer sheet sends shivers through most kids. These activities will orient them to the standard features of standardized tests.

Create a Bubble Graph

Begin each day with a typical math problem or reading question that you take from a practice test or write yourself. (We've found that students love seeing themselves in items.) Write the item on chart paper and place long rows of bubbles next to each answer. Create a "bubble graph" by asking each student to fill in the answer he or she thinks is correct. Refer to the graph when you review the problem.


Teachers Emily Hamilton and Jennifer Underhill of Boston have students make standardized reading tests for one another. After providing plenty of model tests, they ask students to select passages from favorite books, read them carefully, and develop a set of multiple-choice questions. When students are finished writing their tests, they administer them to one another. Test taking was never such fun! Students can create their own math tests, too. In addition to word problems, assign "greater than/equal to" problems. Kids love writing items to stump their friends, such as "Which is more, two dozen or the number of hours in a day?"

Pass-Along Questions

For books they read during silent reading time, students can write comprehension questions or math problems on stick-on notes and affix them to the cover. The next child who reads the book answers the items and adds her own. For favorite books, the number of items grows quickly.


Six Tips for Nipping Test Stress in the Bud

1. Don't skimp on practice tests. They are vital to helping students understand the mechanics of the tests. Call your test company to request samples.

2. Promote positive attitudes about testing. When discussing tests with students, make three recommendations: Be serious, confident, and strategic.

3. Deal with basic roadblocks. Do your best to circumvent problems such as inadequate breakfast, lack of sleep, and chronic tardiness prior to testing week.

4. Plan a fun day-of-test activity. Avoid academic activities immediately before testing. Instead, try something less stressful, such as Simon Says.

5. Look out for daydreamers. Seat easily distracted students in cubicles and corners. Encourage them to stay on task by checking off each line they read.

6. Talk about those last few minutes. The final moments of a test period are valuable for checking work and guessing on remaining questions.


Nell K. Duke has worked with children in early-childhood, elementary, and secondary settings. She is a doctoral student and instructor at Harvard's Graduate School of Education, as well as cofounder and coordinator of the Neighborhood House Charter School Literacy Institute in Boston, Massachusetts.

Ron Ritchhart received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics Teaching in 1993. He is a doctoral student at Harvard's Graduate School of Education and author of Making Numbers Make Sense (Addison-Wesley, 1994) and Through Mathematical Eyes (Heinemann, 1997).