When you want to really get some work done, what’s your first step? Remove distractions. We all know that hitting little roadblocks in our thinking, even if they are tiny, degrades our ability to concentrate. On the other hand, if we are extremely familiar with a process, our brains can handle it almost on autopilot.
Compare the first time you drive to work along a new route to the hundredth time – it’s not unusual to completely blank out and wonder how you arrived!
That’s how the mechanics of testing should be for students: autopilot.
Like all humans, student’s brains only have a certain amount of capacity for puzzling things out. Their puzzling capacity is drained by anything new they encounter. It’s very important not to use up any of this capacity on non-testing things.
Building familiarity with the testing process
When the kids take a year-end test, the only thing you want to be new to them is the actual content of the questions. They should have experienced every other aspect of testing in the past, to the point of utter familiarity. This includes:
- The testing room
- Computer protocols
- How to engage with the questions
- How to check answers
- How to take breaks
- How to stay quiet when finished
I want to cover those items that you can build familiarity around in advance. It’s not exactly a content review, it’s more of a process review…but a review nonetheless.
Familiarity requires repetition
There’s that repetition thing again!
The only way for students to become utterly familiar with the process of testing is to experience it over and over and over again. This means that you, the teacher, takes every opportunity to use realistic testing protocols as often as possible.
Not every aspect of testing can be practiced every time (for example, you can’t practice computer skills when taking a paper test), but you should practice as much as you can.
Practice “classroom testing mode”
I’m mention it again later, but it’s important for you to understand the conditions that will be enforced during the year-end test. For example, here is an excerpt from an SBAC test administration booklet:
Instructional materials removed or covered
Instructional materials must be removed or covered, including but not limited to information that might assist students in answering questions that is displayed on bulletin boards, chalkboards or dry-erase boards, or on charts (e.g., wall charts that contain literary definitions, maps, mathematics formulas, etc.).
Students must be seated so there is enough space between them to minimize opportunities to look at each other’s work, or they should be provided with table-top partitions.
Access to allowable resources only
Students must only have access to and use of those allowable resources that are permitted for each specific test (or portion of a test).
When you administer unit assessments:
Also, if a student will be allowed an accommodation on the year-end test (e.g. a reader), then practice that during unit assessments.
Teaching how to use reference tools
Anything students use as a tool must be taught. You should know, from experience or accessing available online practice tests, what tools will be available to students. Let’s review some common items.
The use of calculators is not obvious if you’ve never seen one in action. Some online test questions come with built-in calculators. Sure, they won’t function exactly like handheld calculators, but the principle will be the same.
Dictionaries and thesauri
Students can’t carry a dictionary into the testing room, but often a question will have a snapshot of a dictionary or thesaurus entry. They won’t know how to interpret this snapshot unless they have been using these resources before in some format. I’ve always found it best to learn to use dictionaries using the hard copy, then move on to online resources.
Other testing tools
Students will also need practice with how to access tools that may be hidden in a menu. If there is tool or menu item in a practice test that students don’t use on a routine basis, it should be explicitly addressed, taught and practiced.
Computer lab details
I’ve got to say it: computer lab time could be the most inefficient time any teacher spends in school. I’ve seen lab time abused over and over as little more than play time so teachers can have a break. This usually manifests as teachers plugging kids into an educational game and pretending that they are reviewing standards.
Ouch! Very harsh, I know. But it’s true and you know it. Trust me: if your kids are going to do well on a computer-based test, then they’d darn well better be little experts on all things computer.
What do your students need to know about computer usage? Let’s go down the list so you know what to practice.
Respect for equipment
I’ve set up and maintained computer labs in more than four buildings, so I know they are filled with delicate equipment. Respect is paramount! Which means:
- No sprinting to get the “best” spot
- No cord yanking
- No shoving on tables (which leads to power cord yanking)
- No accessing computer settings or changing anything on desktops
- No chewing on headphone cords
Really, it’s common sense that should be reinforced whenever they touch a laptop or tablet anywhere in school. I even teach my kids – and they practice – how to carry laptops with both arms folded across them so they don’t drop them. When respect is infused into every computer interaction, it will carry into the testing lab as well.
Startup and shutdown
There is a particular way to start up computers and shut them down that keeps them happy and ready for the next class to use. Children have to learn this process. It’s somewhat involved to teach, though, especially if you aren’t a computer whiz yourself.
Clicking and dragging
This is about the most basic step in computing: mouse work. But the younger the kids are, the harder it will be for them.
This skill begins in kindergarten and is deceptively difficult to teach when students have not yet mastered left and right. One suggestion: use a metallic marker or White-Out to put a dot on the left mouse button.
Interestingly, mouse skills are fading as students become more accustomed to using only phones and tablets outside school. Families these days tend to purchase tablets rather than laptops or PC’s. I see it more every year – students poking their fingers at standard monitors instead of using a mouse.
Short answers will go into text boxes, so children need to learn how to use them. These text boxes will often come with basic formatting tools.
It’s best to use official practice tests so students can see exactly what they’ll be facing at test time. But any text box work will help; I have even made Word document forms for kids to practice typing in text boxes.
They are very likely to encounter a text box in math that requires them to write an equation. Students will need to practice how to input mathematical symbols such as ÷ or how to type in a fraction.
No detail is too small when you're helping children prepare for a test. For example, one of the math tests my students took one year involved fractions and there was a difficult-to-use tool to create fractions to insert into text boxes.
I showed my kids how to properly type fractions and mixed numbers so they did not have to use this awkward tool. Like this:
- One half = 1/2
- One and a half = 1-1/2
You see, mixed numbers need a dash between the whole number and the fraction. If kids don’t know about the dash, then they end up writing one and a half as 11/2. Eleven seconds is much greater than one and a half, and they’ll lose a point on their answer.
This is easy to avoid, but you have to teach them how to do it correctly. And give them plenty of practice.
Find the computer time in some way, shape or form
Some schools don’t set up testing rooms full of computers until just before test time. That’s OK – students should be practicing computer skills every time they sit down at one, including the ones in your own room.
But even if you don’t’ have an opportunity until right before the test, kids need a session (two sessions are better) in the lab (or the temporary testing room) before they go there for the real thing. They have to understand exactly how it’s all going to work so they aren’t stressing those valuable brain cells during the actual test.
Some test providers establish a practice or “sandbox” environment on their websites where students can login and get a feel for the real thing. If this option is available, use it!