By COURTNEY BROWN
As we move closer to the end of the school year and approach the high-stakes testing season, we know educators are grappling with the question: to test prep or not to test prep?
When it comes to high-stakes exams that help determine whether or not students will graduate from high school (as is the case with some New York State Regents’ exams), which colleges they may have access to (based on their SAT or ACT scores), or whether or not they can move to a new grade level (as is the case for elementary students and their scores on NYC ELA and Math exams), there’s no doubt that schools and teachers should strategically plan for test prep. We need to be able to support students in meeting the demands of these exams, and to equip them with the skills and knowledge needed to have authority over the exam.
Preparation is key
Most standardized exams are their own unique genre — they ask questions in unfamiliar ways, and include tasks that may only exist in the specific format on the exam. Some exams may seem foreign to students because of their formatting, structure, and use of language.
One way to think about the importance of test prep is to understand that taking a long, grueling exam once a year is similar to running a marathon. None of us would want to run a marathon without training for it, or without gathering advance information that will help us achieve our goal.
While we should take time to prepare students for challenging, high-stakes exams, it’s crucial that we don’t overinform the focus of our curriculum or instruction. Instead, we should offer test prep strategies that allow students to exercise authority over the exam. To avoid narrowing our instruction to focus solely on test prep, it may be helpful to think of preparation as two components: understanding the content and skills related to the exam, and understanding the structure of the exam itself.
Understanding content and skills related to the exam
Allowing students to learn exam-related skills and content is best accomplished by strategically building key skills, standards, and understandings into your curriculum throughout the year. Ideally, you would also be able to scaffold these components in the years leading up to the exam.
You can then periodically assess student learning throughout the year and re-teach, review, and reinforce areas that still need some work. Going back to our marathon analogy, we can think of this part of the test prep process as conditioning and training so that our students have the tools needed to run the race.
Understanding the structure of the exam
The second part of test prep involves getting to know the exam — it’s genre, language, scope, and scoring methods. We want students to have agency over the exam and an understanding of all its components. Students should have the opportunity to take a practice exam in its entirety, so that they have a chance to practice their pacing, and time to develop their own best practices for test-taking.
Again, thinking about the exam as a marathon that our students are being asked to run, the more our students know about the course of the race, the more empowered they’ll be when developing strategies to tackle it.
If we regularly gauge student progress on as they learn the key skills needed to succeed on an exam, and assess their mastery of the exam’s sections, we can adjust and differentiate our teaching to offer students what they need to be as prepared as possible, while maintaining a positive and enriching experience in our classrooms.
To help get you started with implementing strategic, positive test prep, check out our RISE resource, which offers guidance for helping students gain access, agency, and authority over exams.