Standardized exams have been a controversial topic over the past several years. There is an ongoing debate over the level of emphasis that should be placed on the value of these assessments. Certain individuals oppose these exams arguing that they are biased and do not provide opportunities for all individuals to succeed. Others disagree arguing that these exams indicate college readiness. Regardless of whether you think the amount of emphasis placed on these exams is valid, helping students conquer these exams is critical. Our job as educators is to ensure that students are equipped with the weapons that they will need in order to defeat these challenging assessments.

Engaging Students During Test Preparation

The mere mention of "test prep" to most of my high school students elicits responses of moans and sighs. This lack of enthusiasm creates a barrier and prevents students from learning. Because of this, it is critical for us to make every attempt to merge the teaching of test-taking skills into our regular instructional routines. It is also important to assure that our teaching methods are engaging. I use a variety of methods to keep my students engaged in the content including:

Game Day Fridays

Because most adolescents are highly competitive, we have some sort of test prep competition for one class period every week. Though there never seems to be enough time to cover everything during test preparation, I have found that my "Game Day Fridays" motivate students to make attempts at mastering the content. One of their personal favorites is our Power Point version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. I originally received this game template from educator Tom Houston. The template has been modified to prepare my students for the New York State English Regents Exam.

Download a sample of my English Regents Millionaire (PDF) game.

Thoughtful Text Selection

While in "test prep mode," I typically focus on nonfiction texts. However, I try to select texts that are high interest and relatable to my students. Examples of nonfiction texts that have captured the attention of my 9th grade students are "Why Weren’t You His Friends" by Bob Greene, and excerpts from the Taste Berries for Teens series of books.

Multiple Choice Test-Taking Strategies

Whether the content is English, science, or history, most multiple choice exams can typically be conquered by following a formula for answer selection. One of the most significant elements of the formula used with my students is the "process of elimination." If done carefully, this procedure can guide students to select of the correct answer, even if they may lack the content area knowledge needed to do so.

Download my Multiple Choice Strategies (PDF) presentation for use with your students.

Building Stamina

Most high school standardized exams require students to read, write, and think critically for a minimum of two hours at a time. I have found that this is the cause of many students’ failure to perform to their full potential on these exams. Therefore, it is important for students to build their stamina. I try to facilitate this by:

Being a Reading Cheerleader

The most effective way to increase the stamina needed to succeed on standardized exams is to increase the length of time that students read independently within one sitting. As a part of every homework assignment, my students must read for a specified length of time and complete a brief reading reflection log. As the school year progresses, I gradually increase the required reading minutes in order to gradually improve students’ reading stamina. Furthermore, I have found that some adolescents become very resistant when they feel that they are being forced to do something. Thus, instead of forcing my students to read, I attempt to place high interest books in my classroom library to which my students will gravitate. Additionally, because I have a good rapport with my students, I try my best to read as much young adult literature as possible and match students with books that I feel will capture their interests.

Simulating Actual Exams

I attempt to simulate standardized exams in my classroom under the exact conditions which students will take the exam. This entails knowing which of my students receive test modifications and knowing exactly what those modifications are. A few of my students receive an additional 50% of time on standardized exams, thus I try to simulate exams during double period blocks in order to allow that extra time.

Building Academic Vocabulary

Last year my principal sent me and seven colleagues to an educational conference. There was one speaker whose words and methods resounded with each and every one of us. Former educator and current educational consultant Larry Bell presented his methods of building knowledge of academic vocabulary in order to increase standardized test scores. Bell’s methods surround his twelve powerful words (PDF). Bell has employed inventive ways to teach these words including matching a dance move to each word as well as creating several twelve words songs (PDF) that are set to the tempo and melody of classic tunes such as The Temptations’ hit "My Girl." Quite a few of my students have struggled with correctly interpreting questions on standardized exams. With Bell’s innovative methods of teaching the twelve powerful words, those misinterpretations have significantly decreased.

Though it is important for educators to refrain from teaching to the test, high-quality instruction is the best form of test preparation. Helping test takers learn strategies and skills that will allow them to better navigate the exams will enable their true skills and content knowledge shine through.