Preparing for standards-based grading assessments is, in my opinion, as much about attitude as it is about reviewing content.
Don't get me wrong: There is no way that a final pep talk can overcome a year of inadequate academic preparation. But that's not the point of developing great testing attitudes. The point is to get the kids into the best possible mindset for unlocking everything they already know, AND to try their very hardest to get it all out of their brains onto the paper or computer.
The pressure of teacher accountability for test results means that this final step should never be skipped. But let's start at the beginning and work our way forward.
Making time for test prep
The most important preparation concept for getting ready for end-of-the-year testing is this: ensuring that you have the ability to teach all content before the kids are tested on it.
In my district, it always frustrated me that they scheduled 1-1/2 months of math for teaching after the test… so automatically, the children are going to miss those questions.
That is, they would miss them if you followed the year-long plan established by my district. Which, of course, I didn’t.
I made sure, and I recommend that you make sure, that you backward plan from the day of the first high-stakes test to ensure that you get all of the content in even if that means teaching at a bit faster pace than you otherwise would. And you can't finish the last lesson the week before the test since we must allow ample time for review.
Note: This is where your backward planning comes in.
Practicing for year-end test success
Of course, we review questions all the way through the year to ensure that things aren’t forgotten as time goes by, but there needs to be time for intentional and somewhat intensive practice in the weeks leading up to the test.
I create practice or review items for multiple practice sessions on every single standard upon which they will be tested. You can use your district's unit assessments to create more of your own to keep reinforcing those concepts beyond what most teachers will do.
Usually, your state will have “released items” from prior years. But don’t stop there; you can go to other states’ websites or the Smarter Balanced Assessment site and find plenty of released items as well. Some will be on paper, but others will be online and these are great activities for computer lab time.
Many times, if my kids do released items on a paper test, I have them use a “student response system” (also known as clickers) so that I can get an immediate read on whether they are having difficulty with the standards being examined.
Sometimes I give the kids these standards upon which they will be tested and tell them to write their own items. Then I put all these items together in a packet with the kids’ names attached to each problem and have them do it. They really love that and take ownership of the results.
Reviewing makes kids feel smart
In general, I find that students love this period of review because they've already done all the work and mastered it previously, so it feels really good to do things that are easy.
Remember: All the preparation and skill review should be fun, motivating and not a drill.
To theme or not to theme, that is the question
Many teachers and even entire schools will adopt a particular theme to generate excitement and student commitment for year-end testing.
A theme is some unifying concept that captures the imagination of children and motivates them to perform their very best on standardized tests. In the past, I’ve used the following:
- Mighty Smart Pirates
- Monkeys with Super Powers
- “I Can”
- “I Mustache You Some Questions”
The first two are a play on “MSP”, which was the abbreviation for my state test at the time.
(More on thematic decorations and supplies below.)
Make sure your theme never gets in the way of learning and performance. It’s there to accentuate performance not to distract from it. But definitely have fun with it.
Is a theme “crossing the line?”
Is a theme “cheating?” Is it self-serving for a teacher whose score rests upon the performance of her students? These are legitimate questions so let’s take a look at them.
In the high school setting, where kids know that they must pass a particular standardized test in order to graduate, there can be built-in self-motivation for student to do their very best… or at least good enough to pass.
For most elementary students, these motivations simply do not exist, so resourceful teachers need to look for ways to ignite a child’s desire to perform to their absolute best based on intrinsic rewards and the satisfaction of a job well done.
The psychology of kids
At the elementary level, there is a huge psychological component regarding motivation to do your best in any situation whether it’s daily work or high-stakes testing. We are simply dealing with young children who are in the daily grip of changing emotions and the ebb and flow of hormones and changing family and life situations.
And yet… these tests are very important as a way to measure progress and as preparation for when these tests become high-stakes for their own future in high school.
In my book, anything that can help these kids achieve to their highest potential on the day of the test will help these kids learn a very important life skill (testing) and set them up for the best chance at success in their future.
Final prep for high-stakes tests
Aside from implementing a theme (if you choose to), consider the following:
Never talk negatively about any assessment
This is absolutely rule number one. Regardless of your personal feelings, don't be a downer about the test. The students need to put their best effort into it – results matter to their future as I explain above. It's about the kids and not about the teacher.
The theme is usually supported with simple decorations, new nametags on desks, inexpensive items from Oriental Trading Company or the dollar store and perhaps some topical music and hallway bulletin boards. Thematic healthy snacks, too.
I have always decorated the hall outside the room so that the students are jazzed up when they come inside. But I don’t put any decorations on the inside (other than small theme items such as new name tags) so as not to create distractions during any of the examinations.
Plus, it is motivating for all students in the school to see the decorations! Some years, the teachers in my building have joined together to decorate along a common theme to motivate students.
Music to inspire
I choose music for inspiration breaks. One year, for the “You can do it!” theme, I chose a song that went “I can, can do it…yes, I can, can,” etc. The kids quickly learned all of the words so they could sing them during testing breaks.
High-stakes fun for high-stakes testing
Standards-based grading assessments can be very tough on kids, so it's important to get them in on the positive talk. Before and during the testing – and also during practice tests – not only do I pump them up, I encourage them to do the same with their peers.
The teacher – as always – is the key
My constant, positive talk when working up to the test and even on the days of the test are:
- “I can't wait to see how well you guys do.”
- “You guys are so amazing!”
- “You know so much about this topic.”
If you, their trusted mentor, says it, they'll believe it and work hard to live up to their own opinion of themselves.
During the actual test, I never sit down even for a moment. I'm always checking on them, walking around the room, patting them on the back, and showing them I’m as invested in the test as they are.
And even though they may have just started the test five minutes ago, I'm constantly telling them “I'm so proud of how much you know.”