Sunday, March 1, 2015

Constructivist Test Prep? You bet.

This is the time of year that many teachers dread.

The. Test.

I am a believer (to a degree) in some forms of standardized testing.  Districts need to get some feedback on how their students and programs are performing.  That being said, the evolution of testing into high stakes, pressure-riddled experiences for teachers and students about sends me over the edge.

Teachers around the country are worried about if they are preparing their students well enough.  If they have given them enough practice opportunities. If they have spent their instructional minutes providing them with EXACTLY the right amount of exposure to what they will see on the test.

I don't.

I don't make pages of practice questions. I don't do a "real" test preparation unit.  I don't provide ongoing practice on key skills I know will be on the test.  It's not worth my time.  I'm not preparing a group of students to be test takers.  I am teaching them how to think and how to learn and how to tackle ANY problem they encounter--with energy, with perseverance, and with an "I can do this!" attitude.

In my heart of hearts, I truly believe that students who can read, who can think, who are willing to try will do as well or BETTER than students who are given hours of fill in the blank practice.  I want students to learn how to do well on these tests without me telling them what to do and spending hours of their precious time drilling.  I want them to DISCOVER how to be successful by putting them in situations where they can learn this genre in a meaningful way.  Now--before you accuse me of doing my students a disservice, let me tell you what I DO do!

1.  I do teach my students about multiple choice questions.  In fact, I try to get them in the minds of a test writer by teaching them about distractors and even having them try writing questions with a right answer, a distractor, and two other relevant answers. We even talk about the art of "coloring the bubble".

2.  I do teach my students about healthy testing behaviors like getting sleep, eating well, and relaxing for best performance.

3.  I do teach my students about reading critically, about going back into texts to find answers, about thinking about what authors are trying to tell us.

4.  I do teach my students about staying focused and checking over their work.

5.  I do teach my students about answering questions fully and providing evidence found in the texts.

6.  I do teach my students about what to do when they encounter a challenging problem.  We learn all sorts of strategies that gives us to reread directions. How to find key words.  How to "give it a try" on scratch paper.  Even how to SKIP it if it is interfering--and then we come back later.

7.  I teach my students about problem solving and looking for patterns.

8.  I teach my students to read all sorts of materials...stories...poems...articles...graphs...infographics.

9.  I teach my students how to work with stamina so they can sit and complete a task that might take them an hour or so--without losing focus.

10.  I teach my students how to be ok with doing their best and having an "I can do it!" attitude.  I want them to treat everything they do with that spirit...and to walk away knowing that they did their best--and that's all they can do.  I want my students to walk out after the test feeling great--that they did their job...even when the questions were tough.

Do I do this with packets?  Nope.  Do I do this for 3 weeks straight?  Nope.  I do this all year long, when it's relevant...and BECAUSE it's relevant.  

Now--don't get me wrong--we DO a practice test or two.  In fact, we take it, study it, and break it apart.  I have my students hunt for terms they think are tricky like "passage" or "synonym".  We make anchor charts and lists of "things to know" about taking tests.  We practice this in a quiet room to mimic testing situations.  We talk about filling in the bubbles neatly and checking over our work so we don't miss questions.  If I taught third grade, I would have to do even more of this because the test is so new.  That being said, if we can teach our students to have a great attitude about trying, if they can stay focused and apply what they know, and if they can be successful at whatever task they are handed!

How are my test scores, you might ask?  My principal called me in several years ago to ask what I do...because my scores were SO much higher than the average.  It was hard for me to explain.  I told her, "I teach students how to learn, how to work, and how to try."  

One resource that has been super helpful to me is the book "Test Talk" by Amy Greene and Glennon Melton.  It gives some GREAT suggestions for how to incorporate test taking strategies into your reading workshop.  Check out the link below for more details.  

One final thing I do is ask my students to talk and write about all the ideas mentioned above.  It needs to be more than me TELLING them these things...they need to be able to process them and construct their own meaning.  I have put a lot of this together in an unusual test prep resource--in case you are interested!  Thanks for stopping by--and good luck on the tests.  Make sure you keep it positive and give your students the power to do well AND feel good about it!


  1. Meg,
    Thank you SO much for this post! I have just become a follower of your blog and follow you on TPT and purchased many of your products! I, too, do what you do very similarly. My first couple years of teaching (this is now my 8th), I used to spend weeks doing drilling-type practice with my students until I realized that was doing no good at all! It was actually stressing both myself and my students out even more! Now, I incorporate test-taking strategies all year long as well! About two weeks before the state testing, we brainstorm a large list of a strategies and my students pair up to research the strategy- how it works, why it works, the research behind it, how it can be used during the test, and how it can also be applied in the "real world." It has been SO neat to see my students realize that, yes, light exercising/stretching can get them ready for the test; eating a mint can get them ready for the test; eliminating/omitting (new words for them) answer choices actually works, etc.! My students present their findings in a presentation and that is the extend of my test prep! Thank you for sharing the link to the book and your new test prep resource! I'll be sure to check it out!

  2. GREAT post, Meg!! We have different tests here and grade 5 is our big year for the national curriculum tests. I've been doing some of what you said - using past papers as "round table" lessons has been the most fun, especially when we added lemonade and cookies as a reward to ourselves for working so hard :) On the last "practice" test my students did, every single student improved, except for two who stayed exactly the same. Most of them used text evidence (which was awesome) and the way they answered questions was fantastic. Our tests are not multiple choice so detailed and thoughtful answers are required. The kids were thrilled with their "scores" and are all fired up now to do even better. More "round table" talks coming up! :) And I LOVE the strategy brainstorm idea - totally going to do that next term!

  3. Thank you for this post! This is my third year teaching and my first year administering the state I'm a little nervous about this week! I've been trying to prepare my students by practicing the amount of time they are given so they will not get overwhelmed. I love all of your strategies!

  4. I just ordered the book!! I also try to teach strategies that will help students learn, rather than teach isolated testing skills. Cannot wait to read during Spring Break!! Thanks as always, Meg!!