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March 25, 2011 Five Ways to Make Standardized Test Prep Engaging By Angela Bunyi
Grades 3–5, 6–8

    With state testing quickly approaching, my grade level decided to try out some new ways to review content across the curriculum. One idea that has received rave reviews from both students and parents is our weekly TCAPalon competitions. "TCAPalon" — a play on our state test's name and "triathlon" — allows our classes to compete academically with each other while receiving quality review instruction. Read on to learn how to turn standardized test prep into a team event, and to read about some tried and true test review methods. 

    Photo: Students learn how to review using the "Great BamBunyi" method.


    Five Ways to Make Standardized Test Prep Engaging

    1. Take a Team Approach to Test Review 

    Testing doesn't need to be anymore stressful than it already is. Using the "drill and kill" or "spray and pray" methods just adds stress — for both students and teachers. With this in mind, my grade level created the TCAPalon. TCAPalon competitions occur on the three Wednesdays before our state tests. Each of the teachers in our grade level is responsible each week for one leg of the TCAPalon. I, for example, am in charge of the math competition. Utilizing ThinkLink data for our grade level, I ranked our highest areas of need and offered a study guide to all students. My teaching peers did the same for their areas of content, social studies and science.

    Once our students have the study guides, the studying begins! On Wednesday mornings, students rotate through the three classrooms in one-hour blocks for competition. The one-hour sessions include a review activity or game and a 15–20 minute independent assessment. After determining the overall average scores for the independent assessments, we declare the winner.

    Awards are carefully considered, since we're all against using food for rewards, and extrinsic rewards in general. Some rewards include lunch with Captain TCAP, which is a teacher-aide dressed up in a cape and mask that students just adore. We are also creating a bulletin board to track our progress as we move closer to the "big" day. 

    I like this type of review because

    • review content is broken up into manageable time chunks, allowing students to spread their review time out.
    • students approach test review with a team spirit, which leads to more students' studying prior to the event.
    • teachers have time to concentrate and teach specific skills with great care.
    • using the athlete analogy, students begin to understand the true value of practice and studying leading up to the day of competition.

    2. Offer Immediate Feedback With Those Pesky A,B,C,D Test Questions

    I am confident that you have an unhealthy supply of multiple choice standardized test prep booklets. Students do need some exposure to this format — in moderation and with modifications. For multiple choice practice, I suggest "pinch-it" cards. I recently attended a math workshop where this idea was presented, and I adapted it for multiple choice test practice. 

    When having students answer multiple choice questions, it's best to give immediate feedback. Several schools have CPS clicker sets, which can be really fun, but this free method can be pulled out in a second and used over and over again. 

    Directions: Print out the front and back side of the pinch-it cards on card stock and laminate. Students simply "pinch" their answer, so that you can immediately assess them. Pinch-it cards also give students the freedom to select an incorrect answer without embarrassment. 

    3. Incorporate Stress Relief Strategies Into Your Classroom Routine

    Minutes before our state writing assessment last year, our school counselor came into the room and guided us through some relaxing breathing techniques with dimmed lights and soothing music in the background. It really eased the jitters and changed the testing atmosphere. It does make a difference.

    Every day, I dim our lights and play classical music as part of our morning routine. As a result, I frequently hear remarks about how mellow and relaxed our class is. However, there are other strategies that will help lower anxiety levels in your classroom, such as:

    • Aromatherapy: Rosemary, lavender, and vanilla have garnered the most attention as anxiety-reducing scents.
    • Peppermint: Excellent for frazzled nerves and a perceived treat for students.
    • Yoga: On rainy days our counselor has offered yoga sessions. It was a real eye opener watching which students couldn't relax or close their eyes: those that couldn't close their eyes were consistently my prime stress-prone students. This may be helpful to know before testing occurs.
    • Lighting and Music: Although it is helpful to dim lights and play music in the background before a test, make sure you don't do this WHILE you conduct test review. Why? You want the environment to mimic the real setting, and music is not an option during state testing. 

    4. Harness the Power of the Internet

    Do you remember the old television show Press Your Luck? It was the show where contestants shouted, "Big money, big money, no whammies!" If you have a SMART Board, then you have access to hundreds of test review templates that make learning fun — including "Press Your Luck" — allowing you to create and present a game in thirty minutes or fewer. If you don't have a SMART Board, there are still plenty of Internet games and sites that help with test review. Here are a few I recommend:

    • JeopardyLabs: I wrote about this in my post on identifying sources. It takes a few minutes to create a Jeopardy board, and students can access the link later for more review.
    • Scholastic's StudyJams: I still can't believe this resource is now free. By and large my students prefer StudyJams over BrainPOP. This is an excellent site for reviewing math and science content.
    • Internet4Classrooms: With this site you just type in the learning standard, and state and grade level specific activities are at your disposal. An excellent resource for both teaching content and reviewing it. 
    • IXL: Our school has a license for IXL, but anyone can access the site for up to thirty minutes for free. Our students utilize it, schoolwide, for practice on specific math skills. Teachers can see how students are doing and how much time has been logged. Some grade levels compete to answer a certain number of questions or log the most hours.
    • Punctuation Paintball: This is a fun version of the typical drill and kill grammar practice. Students get a sentence to correct, and after they select a convention, they use the paintball gun to splatter the word with the correction. My 5th grade students seem to enjoy it as much as my 3rd graders did.

    5. Morning Study Sessions

    I wrote about this in depth two years ago. I offer before-school study sessions in the two weeks leading up to our state testing, and the parents provide breakfast. You can read my post describing how this works and offering a few other test prep resources, including our version of Johnny Carson's "Carnac the Magnificent" skit and test survival kits.


    What helpful resources or activities do you utilize in your classroom to make test review engaging and anxiety-free? Please share!

    As always, you are welcome to visit our classroom site anytime.



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