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February 19, 2014 Test Prep Tips Using Academic Olympics By Lindsey Petlak
Grades 3–5

    It’s everyone’s favorite time of year again . . . state testing! Standardized testing is a reality in today’s teaching world, but it doesn’t have to be a dreaded annual event, nor does it mean you must “teach to the test.”  You have been teaching your heart out all year, and your kids are ready. Your “academic athletes” just need a little “coaching” to help ease their nerves, review concepts taught, and prepare them for the big event. Approach test prep in a fun, engaging manner via Testing Olympics to encourage your students to go for the GOLD!


    Coach’s Corner:

    Personally, I am not a proponent of test prep drilling, pressure, and/or teaching to the test.  However, testing time is a high-stress event for most of my students. The whispers of ISAT (our Illinois state test) rumble through the school throughout the year, filtering down from fifth grade through third. Students hear administrators and district officials reporting on test scores, and parents want their children to “test their best” because certain placement opportunities (such as accelerated learning, gifted and talented education, etc.) are at least partially based on these assessments. It is my goal to acquaint students with testing formats (like those dreaded Scantron bubbles and grid or lined paper in the booklets) and timed testing sessions, as well as to review content as a means to ease their minds, relieve stress, and make them feel personally ready to do their best on the tests.


    Origins of the Academic Olympics:

    In my first two years of teaching, my good friend and former colleague (love you, Heidi!) created and implemented the ISAT Olympics in an after-school program designed for students who were in the academic warning category from the previous year’s test scores. These were students in our school who scored in the lowest percentiles across multiple tested areas. In doing so, ALL of our “academic athletes” met or exceeded grade level expectations on that year’s test. I was hooked. My current school does not offer the same after-school preparation program, but I still implement Academic Olympics with my own students and continue to see fantastic results, most importantly, in the students’ self-confidence and attitudes about the tests.


    Athlete Warm-Up:

    All students can relate to athletes, especially since we are in the middle of the 2014 Winter Olympics. I leverage that connection and adoration students have for their favorite players and teams to draw comparisons to state testing. To kick off our Academic Olympics, we do the following academic athlete warm-ups before beginning Academic Olympics practice:

    • Pump up the volume with sports jams streaming through the classroom.

    • Watch awe-inspiring video clips of athletic feats of strength, stamina, and teamwork.

    • Display KWL charts about athletes, sports teams, and the Olympics.

    • Discuss the concepts of athletic practice, stamina, perseverance, competition, teamwork, goals, fears, and pressure.

    • Create Venn diagrams comparing and contrasting the athletic concepts above with similar testing concepts of practice, stamina, perseverance, competition, teamwork, goals, fears, and pressure.


    There’s No “I” in TEAMWORK:

    Students feel alone and much personal pressure when it comes to testing. I like to diffuse those solitary fears by kicking off our Academic Olympics with team building:

    • Choose teams at random.

    • Have each team create a relay baton (using free paint sticks) and/or t-shirts.

    • Let teams select their country of origin and create or color their own country flag, slogan, and goals poster.

    • Athletic teams learn that they will be competing for best effort and perseverance as a team during Academic Olympics training events. Winners receive a team trophy at their table for the rest of the day!


    Let the Games Begin:

    Throughout the Academic Olympics, athletes will participate in both individual and team-based activities to build stamina; become familiar with state testing questions, format, and time constraints; and to review/sharpen skills and strategies for answering questions previously taught this year. Activities such as comprehension relay races and extended response marathons were just a few of the fun events. Try some of these out with your class:


    Comprehension sprints:

    • Teams read an entire passage (without questions showing) together

    • Once all teams have read and briefly discussed the passage, they prepare for the relay race.

    • Each team member needs a different color of highlighter or marker.

    • Students race individually to a set of questions with copy of the text at the end of your room, hallway, or gymnasium.

    • Each student must answer one question, then highlight the text evidence for their response and race back to their team.

    • Each team member repeats until all questions are answered.

    • Teams must both answer the questions correctly and cite their rationale with highlighted text evidence.



    Extended response relay races: Similar to comprehension sprints, teams read a passage and the proposed extended response question together. 

    • Students are given a set amount of time to brainstorm as a team what their responses would be.

    • Each team is then given one copy of different SAMPLE responses (available on most state testing website or you may create your own).

    • Each team member is responsible for evaluating one component of the extended response (introduction, response/position, text evidence, conclusion, etc.).

    • Teams use the same rubrics they will be graded with, written in kid-friendly language, to assess the quality of the response they evaluated.

    • Once each team has finished, we come together to assign medals of bronze, silver, and gold to the pieces.

    • Students must be able to defend their rationale for which response deserves which medal by citing evidence from the sample texts supporting excellent performance or errors (resulting in a lower medal).



    Math Marathon: The games and manipulatives highlighted in my previous post, "Hooray for Hands-On Math Games!", make for great Academic Olympics practice! 

    • Set up brackets for teams to progress through as they play math games and advance to the next level.

    • Students work on their teams to play various math games.

    • Winners of each round progress to the next level of the Math Marathon bracket. Each bracket entails a game involving more difficult math skills, concepts, and strategies.  

    • Once students are eliminated from a round, they take the time to play another eliminated team to practice stamina and improve their math skills

    • For the final round, everyone watches and cheers on the last two teams competing.

    • Upon completion of that game, the entire class works with their original team to craft a math extended response either based on a question the teacher poses, or a response evaluating the game and why the winning team was able to defeat their opponent, citing successful strategies used by the winning team and/or mistakes made by the team eliminated.

    Olympic Spirit:  

    You’ve stretched, practiced, pep-talked, worked as teams, and now the big week is finally here. It’s more important than ever to keep the spirits of your academic athletes HIGH, while keeping anxiety, fear, and pressure LOW. Try these fun, supportive, and stress-relieving ideas to help each of your academic athletes go for the gold!

    • Students wear the collective Olympic rings bracelets each day during testing to remind them to “Go for the Gold!”

    • Encourage students to bring in, provide, or ask for PTO/community donations of healthy snacks to fuel your athletic brains.

    • Take plenty of brain breaks between and after testing. My favorites include Just Dance videos on YouTube (preview prior to showing to ensure the dance/song are appropriate for your students) or class yoga.

    • At the beginning of each day of testing, students receive one color of jelly bracelet representing the colors of the Olympics rings. By the end of testing week, students have all of the ring colors to wear together.

    • Each day, reward a handful of students for effort, improvement, attitude, or perseverance by presenting them with a plastic trophy to display on their desk/table for the day.


    Leave surprise spirit-boosters for your students every morning: (FREE PRINTABLES BELOW)

    • Raid your local dollar store to find inexpensive tokens of good luck for your students.

    • Monday: Glow bracelets/necklaces/sticks — You are SO BRIGHT!

    • Tuesday: New pencils (I love the Olympics pencils from Oriental Trading) — You're super SHARP!

    • Wednesday: Bubbles — BLOW away the test today!

    • Thursday: Fun-shaped erasers — ERASE your testing fears!

    • Friday: Star sun glasses (or other star-shaped item) — You are an academic STAR!


    Click on the images below to download FREE PRINTABLES to accompany your good luck suprises!


    More Inspiration:

    Check out this fantastic post by Shari Edwards on “A State Assessment Family Night That's For the Birds!” for ideas on a fun approach to remind parents of good test taking tips they can use to help their children be prepared for state tests and diffuse parental fears and misconceptions.

    Thanks for reading, and happy testing!  I'd love to hear about how you keep state testing low-pressure and make it fun for your students.  Please leave comments and share.

    See you next week!


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