Test Prep the Stress-Free Way

Worry about whether students will get to the end of year benchmarks that have been given is on the mind of teachers everywhere, no matter what grade level taught,.  There isn’t one single grade level, from preschool all the way through high school in which teachers don’t feel this pressure, but for certain, any teacher that has to endure end-of-year state testing feels this pressure 1,000x.  Which leads to a common worry–how do we best prepare our students for these end of year benchmarks?  Whether you call it test prep or reaching mastery or reaching grade level expectations, one of the most asked questions I get as a coach is “how can I prepare my students for the test?

These benchmarks can come at different times of the year, and many times districts layer on their own required assessments on top of what the state mandates.  It’s a lot of pressure, no question.  If you can answer any of these three questions with a “yes,” I have advice for you!

Do you wish the phrase “testing season” didn’t give you hives?

Do you dream about feeling confident that your kids are ready when it comes to benchmark testing?   

Do you want your kids to feel the same way?  


If you clicked on this post hoping to find a packet of resources you could simply purchase and download for your kids to complete, cute games to print and play, cartoon coloring pages with motivational phrases, or anchor charts with yet more acronyms for kids to memorize, let me say right upfront–you are not going to find any of that here.  You are, in fact, not ever going to find that sort of thing with me.  Why?

Because gimmicks, skill and drill (and, may I add, overkill), and isolated practice of anything doesn’t transfer.  Ever.  It’s too far removed from the actual thing.  So if you’re looking for these sorts of things, I’m not for you.  But if you’re looking to find out what you can put in place to ensure your students will rock the benchmark assessments–and in very time-efficient and relevant ways–keep reading!

The very real pressures of test prep

Feeling time-pressured isn’t the only wolf at the door when it comes to ensuring our kids are ready for big benchmark tests.  Anxiety is another very real feeling.  And not just for you.  Too often, our students are the ones feeling the pressure.  They feel us getting anxious, they might be feeling pressure from parents, and they often place a lot of pressure on themselves.  

This is what we want to avoid.  We never want kids to feel this way.  These tests are just single moments in time, and they are a reflection of our own teaching, not just student performance.  If students weren’t so anxious, if we were assured that they were ready, the whole atmosphere around testing would be better.  Less anxious teachers lead to less anxious kids.  Less anxious kids leads to more confident kids.  More confident kids perform better.  

This confidence is attainable.  I’ve experienced it with my own students–and it is liberating.  

Would you like to know how to get there?  

I’m going to tell you the secret.  I hope you will hear me out.  

Test prep isn’t about what the kids do.  

It’s about what you do as the teacher.  It’s about knowing the expectations, knowing where your kids are, and putting in the steps (and the work) to get them there.  

It’s about explicit, intentional instruction.  This is not the same as isolated instruction.  There’s a huge difference.  

Test prep isn’t done in a two week time period right before the test.  It’s not even done in a month-long unit.  It’s done in small doses over a long period of time.  

That said, here’s a rundown of things to consider:

  1. Know your assessments.  Understand the goals, the structure, the test-specific vocabulary, the types of questions being asked, and how the scoring works.  Every assessment has some form of sneak peak you can take, whether that’s examining released items and their scoring, guidelines from the test developers, or even training videos.  Knowing where you’re going is paramount.
  2. As you create or revise your own assessments throughout the year, keep the structure of the end-goal assessment in mind.  Ensure you’ve included some questions on every assessment (across subject areas) that mirror this.  Exposure to these kinds of formats is important.  For example, many assessments have a part A and part B.  Some have short constructed responses.  You do not want the first time your kids see this to be on the big testing day!  
  3. As well, study the testing language in your assessments.  Ensure that you’re including this kind of wording throughout the year on your assessments and in your general teaching.  Not exclusively, of course.  Again this is all about exposure over time.  When done in small doses over time build, you build a bank of testing-specific vocabulary that students become well-versed with.
  4. Leverage your Interactive Read Alouds.  The stopping points you plan for–the think alouds and the student engagement moments–are a perfect opportunity to ask questions that include some of that test-specific vocabulary and build higher-level comprehension skills.  
  5. In the same way, small group reading lessons are another chance to include questions like they’ll see on a test.  You wouldn’t only ask these kinds of questions, of course, but sprinkle them in over the course of the year.  This repeated exposure to the wording and vocabulary of these questions over time…and the subsequent conversation afterwards will help kids take own these words.  
  6. Often, testing questions ask grammar, word choice, or vocabulary questions.  These are very easy to ask in a multiple-choice format, so they come up a lot.  Mirror the format of the test, and ask your own questions, pulling sentences from your read alouds.  These make great warm-up style questions and they hit grammar in a meaningful way.
  7. Using small questions like in tip #6 is a fantastic opportunity to teach test-taking skills, too.  For example, teach your kids to read all of the answer choices, then use the process of elimination to narrow down the choices to find the best response.  This, by the way, works great in math–especially with word problems and error analysis.  
  8. In small group, train students to jot or take notes as they read.  This is directly related to (tip #9) We want them to learn to annotate a text!  Those annotations help them plan and also prove their answers. Too often, we ask kids to annotate on their own.  Leverage small group work for this, where you can coach them closely.  
  9. Along with #8, teach students to read the question first, especially extended written response questions.  That helps them understand the lens through which they should read and annotate.  
  10. Mix it up.  Gamify the idea of answering questions, do shared writing to teach how to construct a response.  Have students work in groups, with partners, and by themselves.  Add test-like questions to your out loud thinking during Interactive Read Alouds, ask kids to partner talk in answer to a question in small group, or move around the room together, carousel-style to collaborate in small groups on questions written on construction or chart paper around the room.  There are lots of ways to make it more fun and interesting.  This is all very easy to integrate into a Balanced Literacy day.  It doesn’t have to be boring!

I could go on, especially when it comes to advice about Text-Dependent Analysis questions so many teachers–and kids–fear.  (Spoiler alert:  this too, can actually be FUN!)  If you’d like some help with approaching these questions in a way that won’t make everyone want to cry, reach out!  I’m just an email away!  

The bigger point here is that a little–as in small doses–goes a very, very long way.  Just like a crash diet before your high school reunion will never amount to weight loss that sticks, a crash course in test prep does little more than cause anxiety for all involved.  

One last piece of test -prep advice, and it’s the most important.  

I hope it came through as you read this post, but I need to underline it.

Our emotions are very felt by our students.  If you act like these benchmark tests are a huge deal, if you mention “test” a lot, do a lot of “test prep” activities, if your tone of voice sounds worried, that will transfer directly to your kids.  Even suddenly handing out candy with cute phrases like “you’re one smart cookie!” can be so out of the ordinary that it puts undue pressure on kids.  (Save these as an after-test treat to show appreciate for their hard work instead).  

By treating testing and and preparation for it as a natural part of your instruction as I’ve shared here, and if you do it all year long so there’s no need to cram (which is a huge anxiety-inducer), you’ll come across as confident and relaxed, because assessment–showing what you know–is just an everyday part of school.  

Let’s be real.

If if you teach in a grade level that has standardized state assessments, there’s going to be some weirdness.  A few days before testing begins, everything is covered or comes off the walls, seating arrangements are changed, and there’ll likely be some sort of online testing tool training.  Parents are begged to ensure their kids are on time, and that they’ve had a good night’s sleep before the big day.  These things alone always bring on a sense of nervousness.  You want to be at a point where this is all that makes them nervous, and it should only be very briefly, until they see that these are really small things.  It’s enough to show them that this is an important event, but mostly they should feel confident that they’ve been well-prepared.

And so should you!

Could you use a thinking partner to find ways to weave in authentic. no-stress test prep into your instruction?  Contact me to set up a coaching call!  Also consider  joining my private FB group for immediate support! 

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Related posts:  Interactive Read Aloud vs Read Aloud:  Which is Better, Are You Inadvertently Causing Your Own Time Frustrations?, Balanced Literacy Instruction:  What it Actually Means

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