One Educator’s Journey to Changing What Test Preparation Looks Like

By Ariel Speck

For many of us educators, there is a similar pattern happening around this time of year: classroom instruction as we know it changes from Tier 1 instruction, riotous classroom discussions, math problems that take all class to collaboratively solve to test prep. For most of this blog contributor’s teaching career, test prep season meant silent rooms drilling released test questions I found online, rounds of quick grading multiple-choice options, and reviewing incorrect answers. It meant on-demand essays (often for the first time that entire year!) and lightning-quick rubric grading, meant to imitate the graders of the actual test, who, rumor had it, only had eleven minutes to score each piece of student writing.

Test prep season was miserable for all of us. But, I thought, it was necessary. So much weight is put on these tests for the students, the school, and my career, and we could not risk failure. One year, after a particularly grueling week of test prep with my tenth graders, as we were leaving the class, one boy came up to me looking exhausted. “When is the actual test again?” he asked. I let him know it was only a week away. “Thank goodness,” he said, rubbing his face. “Then we never have to do this again until next year.” He wasn’t stressing about the test, his future, or what our school score would be in the fall. He just wanted the endless test preparation skill drilling to end. 

I was exhausted by test preparation each year: it took hours to find resources, ensure they were up to date with the latest research and changes to the tests, and give them and grade them. I was doing lightning-fast data analysis that required a ton of extra hours. But I didn’t realize something needed to change until I asked myself: if my students got to the test and they were already exhausted, was I helping or hurting their chances of success? I prided myself on creating a social-emotional learning (SEL) focused classroom for 90% of the school year. Why did it suddenly not matter during testing season? 

I decided to change my approach to testing preparation in the hopes that it would help students feel calmer, better, and more prepared for the test. I knew test preparation the way I had been doing it was not sustainable for my students or myself, and I needed to make big changes before the next season. Here’s what I did:

Creating a Growth Mindset Culture

As an educator, I realized that stopping instruction completely to skill drill for an extended period of time before the test was not actually helping my students. I looked at my data from the very first practice test to the very last one before standardized testing. I would usually “prep” students for 2-3 weeks, and I realized, to my horror, there wasn’t a lot of growth. All of this stress and anxiety for what amounted to 3-5% growth — a statistically negligible growth rate. The answer felt simple: increase the amount of time students got in front of testing. However, my students were already tested a ton. We had tests that determined academic interventions like NWEA MAP, practice ACT®, and curriculum-based assessments. I didn’t want to make students sit through more tests, fatiguing them further. 

Instead, I looked to where test prep already fit into my current offerings. Where in my Tier 1 curriculum were students asked to answer multiple-choice or short-answer questions independently? How was I asking them to track their growth and data? I created a very simple tracker for students to look at their growth over time and set SMART goals. Often, it was as simple as one or two questions that I chose that would help students get really precise with their understanding of their own knowledge.

Goal Setting and Progress Monitoring

I know that I am more motivated to complete a challenging task when I set my own goals. Having someone say, “You can run a marathon if you really try!” is very different than me saying, “I am going to run a marathon by June 26 of next year, and here is my training plan I am going to stick to.” Once I had easy-to-track student data in hand, I was able to help them set their own measurable and attainable goals. Suddenly, we weren’t just preparing for the big end-of-year test that felt really far away and insurmountable, we were focusing on achieving a more bite-sized goal with tangible results that students could check themselves against.

For example, I had a student who struggled routinely with analysis of text. He could select strong text evidence but not explain it in his own words. I gave him a litany of supports, some that he used, and some that he didn’t. After tracking his data for a few weeks, he identified it himself as his biggest growth area. We discussed ways he felt successful and ways he had not. He set a goal of using a sentence frame to remind himself to dig deeper into the meaning of the quote 100% of the time in his writing and write 80% of the time before multiple-choice questions. He was inspired to do this work himself and saw huge results!

It’s Not All About Released Test Items

At last check, I have over 1,000 individual released test items from the three different states I have taught in. I used to love released test items, and in some cases, I still do! They provide quick results, great practice, and they’re relatively easy to find. However, these released test items generally do not provide an accurate picture of students’ knowledge or ability, and increasingly, they don’t represent the format of the test students are seeing. Practice makes permanent, not perfect. I realized that by only doing multiple-choice questions from, in some cases, really old tests, I was teaching my students the art of sitting quietly and filling in a bubble sheet. 

To ensure students are fully prepared for tests, we need to put the new question types students will see in front of them: standards-aligned, tech-enhanced, and increasingly computer adaptive. I would try to find examples by attending free seminars from the state on testing, but I was always working hard and a step behind the test. Partnering with providers like Progress Learning was critical to me because they took the work out of finding or making high-quality items.

To Build Resiliency, Start Supporting Students Early

If the first time we are talking about social and emotional learning in an academic setting is just around testing, we’re starting too late. Fostering social and emotional learning (SEL) in an academic setting is critical to preparing students to do well in all aspects of their life, including their time in the classroom and beyond it. Managing emotions and feelings translates from the classroom to the testing center to beyond, and has been shown to have a significant positive impact on our students’ academic outcomes. 

I used to look at test prep as something to stop the classroom for. It was stressful for both myself and my students, highly disruptive, and not that effective. By using research-based best practices for classroom structure and social-emotional learning, I was able to make changes that significantly impacted student outcomes. With these steps, we can make test prep more effective and less disruptive:

  • Gather consistent data throughout the year
  • Support students in setting bite-sized goals
  • Give students regular practice with standards-aligned questions across various question types
  • Support students’ social and emotional needs 

Progress Learning is a great partner in providing students with quality, standards-aligned content that not only mirrors what they will see on standardized tests but also helps them track and meet their own targeted learning goals. Interested to see how Progress Learning can support your students’ learning and prepare them for state testing? Request a demo with us today!

Related Articles

Featured Image for The Importance of Rigorous Grade-Level Instruction for Student Success

Curriculum, News

The Importance of Rigorous Grade-Level Instruction for Student Success

Over the past few decades, our country has been contending with enduring educational challenges, with reading and math growth staying largely stagnant since the early 2000s. You may be wondering why when teachers are working hard and students are still showing up and putting in the work.  TNTP’s 2018 study, “The Opportunity Myth,” shows that […]

Featured Image for Preparing for the Virginia Literacy Act: A Guide for Educators

Curriculum, News

Preparing for the Virginia Literacy Act: A Guide for Educators

by: Coral Ericson

With the recent passing of the Virginia Literacy Act (VLA), Virginia is poised to become a nationwide leader in improving early literacy. Set to take effect in the 2024-2025 academic year, this legislation introduces significant changes to how literacy is taught and monitored in schools. It’s crucial that educators understand what these changes are, and how best to prepare for them. Here are some key ways educators can ready themselves for these new mandates