Test-Day Preppers

Every year, for six days in April, we, like loads of other elementary school kids around the country head into Test Day.  In Missouri we take what we call MAP, or the Missouri Assessment Program, in Communication Arts, Math and Science.  And we, like loads of other elementary school kids around the country prepare for that testing.

But this is where we’re different.  Well, at least different from some classes.  Before I go on, I feel like I should explain that I am not a copy-lots-of-packets-and-fill-in-bubbles-for-a-whole-month-before-the-test kid of teacher, who stops everything else and focuses just on test prep.

In fact, I’d say that I’ve been preparing my students to do well on the MAP since our first day in August, by asking them to read closely, think critically, work neatly, solve problems and explain their thinking.  In that way, they are ready to demonstrate that learning when asked to show what they know on our state tests.

In addition to that, there are a few things we do to help pump us up, build our confidence and help alleviate the stress related to high-stakes standardized testing:

1. Talk about testing as a genre.

While I do not spend weeks and weeks having students fill in bubbles and complete packets and packets of practice tests for each subject, we do spend time looking at and talking about what the tests will look like.  We unpack the tests (which are examples of released items that have previously been on our MAP, or are examples from other states’ whose tests are similar to ours) and talk about what we notice.  We compare “real” reading and writing with “test” reading and writing.  We noticed that much of that difference comes in the purpose for the reading/writing  (“they” choose that for us instead of us making the decision) as well as they content or structure of the reading/writing (“they” choose what the text looks like, rather than our having a say in it).  We talk about how to tackle these differences and what to do when we don’t have control over it; we discuss what we do have control over–the strategies we use and the ability to do well.  We break apart the word assessment, as well, and dig into the connotations we have for that word.

Words that came into our heads when I first said the word "assessment."  Some were obviously positive, and some were not.

Words that came into our heads when I first said the word “assessment.” Some were obviously positive, and some were not.

We all agreed that this state assessment, like every other assessment they encounter (both inside and outside of school), is really about showing what they know.  Their goal should be to do their best.  That’s it.  🙂

2. Encourage problem solving, risk taking and confidence by introducing Monday Motivations.

Our "Quote Worthy" wall with quotes that encourage us to do our best--on everything we do--not just the test.

Our “Quote Worthy” wall with quotes that encourage us to do our best–on everything we do–not just the test.

There have been many more added since this picture, all with the intent on reminding students that they have much in them that they can pull from, and that they can do so many great things if they just believe it and then make a choice to make it happen.  Each of the last few weeks I’ve shared a quote that we would then discuss, write about, and connect with other quotes we know.  These because a part of our classroom lexicon, and you’ll hear students using these encouraging words often when they talk to each other.  🙂

3. Talk about and work with words.

As we read books together, we investigate words we don't know, and connect them to what we do know to help make sense of them.

As we read books together, we investigate words we don’t know, and connect them to what we do know to help make sense of them.

While this is not specifically related to testing, it helps students on their tests, as they are asked to demonstrate their understanding of reading and writing.  All year long, we’ve been collecting words we didn’t understand, breaking them apart and looking at their parts to help figure out what they mean.  This helps us connect new words to these parts that we know, helping us to make sense of what we’re reading.  We’ve found words in other texts and made connections to writing, as well, by using new words we’ve learned.  And since vocabulary is connected to spelling, our word work supports that piece, as well.

4. Review concepts.

Some of what students are asked to do on tests requires them to apply processes and strategies to new situations, like with reading and writing about an unfamiliar text.  Some of it, however, is directly related to remembering facts.  For us, this is especially true in science, where anything they’ve learned since kindergarten is fair game!  In order to remind them of what they know, we watch a series of videos (many of which they’ve seen before) and then create a class poster of “big ideas” form each set of concepts.  They work with a partner to create a representation of each big idea, similar to what we did when we were studying Native Americans earlier this year.

After we created all of our posters, I had them do a gallery walk with a partner, discussing what each image represented.  They were to make notes with their partners, again reviewing and talking about concepts they’ve learned previously.  Hopefully both these posters and conversations will come to mind when they encounter any of these things on their tests (even after the posters are covered up and the conversations are over!).

5. Covered up content with encouraging words.

There are many things that are no-nos during testing, which includes anything hanging on our walls that might suggest content, strategies, etc.  But rather than take all of the things down (our decimal place value chart, punctuation study chart, science posters, calendar), we cover them up.  The idea is that even if you can’t see the actual content on the poster, your brain will fill in the information that you’ve been looking at on them for all of these weeks, thus making them helpful anyway!  We also took the opportunity to throw in words and phrases that would be encouraging.  For every class those words are different, and this year’s were by far the most creative!

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I think the fact that they are words that we actually say, that they’ve been using all year, they are even more powerful.  These words bring back memories of meaningful conversations we’ve had, strong memories of moments when they’ve overcome struggles and achieved goals.  These words, which are perhaps a bit silly, are theirs.  And they are powerful.

6. Get families involved.

A week or so before testing starts, I send a request to families to ask for their support in helping us get ready for the MAP.  Like I mentioned before, one important piece to the puzzle (in my opinion) is alleviating stress.  One way I do that is to invite families to write letters to their student.  They send these encouraging words to me before the test, and then I pass them out just before we get started.  These notes are like an extra special hug from home at a time that could be really stressful, and they work wonders.  I do the same thing and write students notes about how proud I am of them, how much I believe in them, and how “they got this!”  Often, some of the quotes we’ve been studying together show up here as an added encouragement.

7. Feed their brains.

In the same letter home about writing a letter, we also ask for help with sending healthy snacks for our testing days.

Yum!  Our testing snacks include lots of fresh, "real" food that good fuel for working brains!

Yum! Our testing snacks include lots of fresh, “real” food that good fuel for working brains!  Included are things like Cuties, carrots, apples, cheese sticks, cheese crackers, granola bars, cereal bars, pretzels and bananas.

There is also a fresh stash of mints and gum, which help wake up tired brains and keep their minds engaged.


So really, while it’s a big deal, it’s all pretty simple.  I believe it is my job (from the first day of school), to encourage my students to be thinkers, readers, writers, mathematicians, and learners.  I see it as my goal to help them feel confident and ready, so that these six days in April are really no different than anything we’ve been doing all year.

How do you prepare for testing?  We’d love to hear about what it looks like in your school!