Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Resource Round-Up: Motivating Students During Standardized Testing

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Standardized test
The material has been taught. Testing strategies have been reviewed. Number 2 pencils have been sharpened. The name and test ID bubbles on the answer page have been filled in completely (making sure to erase all marks outside the circles). It's time for state testing.

Upper elementary and middle school student
Most of my students never seemed to be too anxious about test-taking. Maybe it was because they were older. Maybe it was just "old hat" to them. They had other testing issues that needed to be addressed. My 5th grade teaching team focused on three areas to help students get through testing:

1. Building stamina 
Standardized test are long. There are a lot of questions, and the time period for each test requires superhuman attention spans. This means that even when students finish them, they still have to stay quiet and seated until the allotted test time passes. Our students also took tests just as the weather was turning nice so kids were chomping at the bit to get outside after test-taking. To help get our students accustomed to test length and encourage them to maintain focus during such long assessments, we created half-length exams for each subject, which we administered one or two times during the year, using previous years' questions that had been released by the state. After grading the tests (a completion grade most of the time), we'd spend time each week to go over each question with the students. In the end, we thought it did help some students to endure such a long period of focus. 

2. Familiarizing students with format
It was important that students had some exposure to the testing format and language before the actual tests so that nothing was shocking or confusing to them when they tested for real. Therefore, the teaching team would incorporate testing language and question format into the assessments for our regular content material. For example, on tests and quizzes, we'd use multiple choice with bubbles, short answer questions, and constructed response questions, all modeled after the types and structures of questions we had seen on previous years' tests. Another way we familiarized students was to use sample passages to model how to do close reads and respond to the questions about the passages. The feedback we received from students is that it did help them as they tested.

3. Motivating students
By 5th grade, our students got that they weren't being graded on the test, nor did it determine whether they'd move on to the next grade or not. So how do you encourage students with nothing to lose or gain to do their best? In an ideal situation, intrinsic motivation would run rampant among students, but that's just not realistic. We used a valuable resource at our school--the swimming pool--as motivation for the students. Once test results arrived in the summer, our guidance counselor planned a pool party for all students who passed at least one of the tests. She'd send invitations to their homes, provide a tasty picnic lunch and cold treats, and set up outdoor games to play. Students really enjoyed it, and the looks on the faces of children who struggled academically throughout the year but persevered during state testing were priceless!

In honor of state testing season, this week's resource round-up is all about free and creative ideas to motivate students in preparation for standardized testing. It's clear from all of the options out there that teachers really care about encouraging their students, and I think that helps!

Before I get to this week's list of resources, though, I thought I'd share what some of my colleagues on Teachers Pay Teachers had to say when I asked them for their best test prep advice for students. 

Some of it is mental:

ESL Nexus said:
"I told my students to be sure and get a good night's sleep on the nights before tests and, also, to go sleep saying to themselves over and over, "I will do well. I will do well." I'd read that the power of positive thinking really worked as you were falling asleep, and if you fell asleep thinking you would do well on a test, then you were more likely to actually do well on it." 

"I think the best advice to just to remind kids that they know the material! Tests can be so daunting, especially because they are often a different format than the traditional classroom tests, but reminding students that they have all of the knowledge in their brain to do well on the test! I think that helps students feel more confident and less intimidated!"

Mary Carr shared:
"I have made fortune cookies for students with fortunes specially written to encourage test-takers. Kids love the special messages from their teacher."

Some of it is strategic:

Renee from Share2Learn said:
"I always told my 2nd and 3rd graders to just relax and do your best. That was after I told them that the people who write the tests are trying to trick them, and sometimes more than one answer will seem okay so just go with the one that seems best."

Some of it is physical:

"I tell the kids to try their best and show what you know. The class will get back to "regular" instruction after it's finished. I try to include many different brain breaks and activities between tests. The kids are completely drained so they need to get out of their seats and move around between tests."

"Run in place for three minutes beforehand, and make silly, crazy faces...afterward."

And some of it just puts the whole testing business 
into a much-needed, humorous perspective:

"The sun will come up tomorrow. Your friends will still like you. Your parents will still love you. And your pets will still enjoy cuddle time with you--unless your pets are fish."

There you have it. So here is this week's resource round-up. As usual, these suggestions are geared toward upper elementary and middle school students but can be creatively adapted for other grades as well. Without further ado, here we go....

Read a book aloud to students.
Melissa at More Time 2 Teach shares how she uses the book The Big Test by Julie Danneberg to relieve students' jitters and help them to see that testing isn't all bad. A quick search brings up other read-alouds that fit the theme of testing, too!

Adapt the test environment.
Scholastic offers several ideas to keep stress low and motivation high for middle school students in this article, but my favorite is creating a comfortable, home-like environment for students before and while they test. 

Keep students active.
During test breaks, we'd let students stand up, stretch, and do silent jumping jacks to help them refocus. This article from the National Education Association shares something similar as well as other ideas for keeping students focused when attention spans are short. 

Use music.
This music video starring 5th grade students at Centennial Arts Academy is so good! Sung to the tune of Lady Gaga's "Poker Face," students sing about their "Test-Taker Face." If you're brave enough, maybe YOU could direct your students in a music video of their own!

Write a letter to your students.
This letter from a teacher to her students reminds me of a question that I saw posted on Facebook: Name one thing that standardized tests cannot measure about students. 

Use humor.
Check out this video based on the Hunger Games made by 6th graders at a Connecticut middle school as they prepare to "show everything they know."

Invoke a success mindset.
Building intrinsic motivation in students sounds like a daunting task. We can't get inside their minds to make them care. Larry Ferlazzo writes for MiddleWeb about having students make personal connections with success. One activity is to write about an ancestor who had success in his or her life immediately prior to a test. Research shows that writing and sharing about a genetic relative who possessed qualities that led to achievement helps students to believe that they also possess characteristics that will make them successful. 

Offer sweet treats.
Okay, this one isn't exactly free, but it doesn't cost much. (And shhh...a basic tenet of teaching that no one likes to admit is that students almost always respond to the promise of candy.)  Jen at Runde's Room provides some cute ideas and printables for providing little treats to sweeten testing season. 

Roll out a special welcome mat.
I thought this was a fun idea provided by Carol Miller at the Middle School Counselor. Write encouraging messages in sidewalk chalk outside of the doors of the school. 

Decorate for success.
When I was in marching band in high school, our section members would take turns making locker signs for everyone to pump us up for weekend competitions. (Yes, we got excited about competitions. Hey, we were good and liked to win. If you can't relate to marching band, I'm sure you've seen similar signs for athletes on their lockers. Just bear with me here....) Consider making a bulletin board that emphasizes and encourages individual students. Just make sure you it doesn't have anything you have cover up come testing day! I saw some cool ideas at Smartchick Teacher and Nerdy Teacher Confessions.

You know your students best. You can tell what motivates them and what needs you must address to put them in the best position to do well. Here's hoping that these suggestions will help you do just that!

Have another suggestion? Leave a comment!


  1. This is a great post -- so many excellent ideas! Thanks for including my suggestion. :-)

  2. Thanks for visiting and your comment! I'm glad we could collaborate on this!


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