How to Manage Testing Time: For High School Students

Spring break has ended, which gave high school students a much-needed reprieve from the stressful school day. However, as much as students look forward to this time in the school year, it can also be met with mixed emotions because of the high-pressure testing on the horizon.

In addition to the SAT, ACT, and any other college entrance exams, testing for high schoolers might include benchmark assessments to gauge math and reading growth, as well as the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC). Because of the “high-stakes” mentality associated with these sorts of exams, the weeks leading up to and during testing can be stressful for students, parents, and teachers. However, there are strategies that parents and teachers can use to help high schoolers prepare for and thrive during these tests without becoming overwhelmed by stress or pressure.

High school students can benefit greatly from having solid test-taking strategies to call upon when preparing for high-stakes assessments such as college entrance exams. For study tips and tricks, the success of certain strategies truly depends on the style of learner.

Some kinesthetic learners work best when rewriting, reciting, or copying notes because of the fine motor movement used for writing. Similarly, test review or recitation while passing a soccer ball, walking on the treadmill, or sitting on a yoga ball could also help kinesthetic learners. Students who benefit from movement should ask if stress balls, fidget cubes, or focusing clay would be permitted during testing. Students may also find that something as simple as chewing gum may help to summon information from memory as well.

Students with a verbal inclination can utilize acronyms, rhyme schemes, and other word associations to solidify information into long-term memory. Some word associations become downright ridiculous or silly; however, the more bizarre the acronym or rhyme, the more likely the information will stick in one’s memory. Composing notecards with information on one side and the “word game” or association on the other side helps to cement the information even more.

We all know that cramming does more harm than good when it comes to test preparation. Not only does cramming increase stress and anxiety, but it actually has been shown to disrupt the process of moving information from short term memory to long term memory. Because of the sense of urgency that students are experiencing when cramming, the process does little more than create a “muddy” recollection of the jumbled material.  

More and more students are finding success with multiple, brief stints of review over the course of several days or weeks prior to an exam. Research indicates that even in intervals as short as eight minutes at a time, students can memorize and grasp concepts much more efficiently. Not only do the rapid intervals reduce the anxiety of cramming, they aid in recall as well. To test out (no pun intended) this study strategy, students should spend 8-10 minutes organizing notes, outlines, terms, concepts, etc., and begin with the most complex or dire information. High schoolers can then return to the material 30 minutes to an hour later, seeking to reread, summarize, rephrase, or synthesize the small chunk of material that they organized during the previous eight minutes. Each day, students should add another aspect of the study material or exam content to their 8-minute review, and expand on the previous days’ content every few intervals. The key here is to tackle the concepts bit by bit in a logical sense and reasonable timeframe. This way, information builds on itself naturally without the overwhelming sense that comes with cramming.

 

How to Manage Testing Time: For Elementary Students

With spring break here, the focus for many parents, students, and teachers alike is on the welcomed vacation from the daily grind. No matter the brevity, spring break allows families to rejuvenate and reconnect right before the final stretch of the school year.

Yet, as much as many students would like to avoid the topic, spring break also signifies the soon-to-be start of the testing season. The weeks leading up to and during testing can be rather stressful for students. However, there are strategies that parents and teachers can use to help younger learners prepare for and thrive during these tests without becoming overwhelmed by stress or pressure.

  • Testing can be especially stressful and even anxiety-producing for young students. Their desire to do well, outperform their peers, or surpass a previous score could create unnecessary pressure. To combat nerves, teachers and parents should focus on reassuring students of their successes beyond a simple test score. Talk about how a test score is simply one data point—it does not invalidate a child’s previous accomplishment or dictate the possibility of any future accomplishment.

  • Instead of focusing on reaching a specific score, hitting a certain benchmark, or creating unnecessary competition among peers, help young elementary schoolers set goals for growth or practice positive test-taking habits. Help children by setting goals like aiming to get adequate sleep, eating a healthy, filling breakfast, and spending some time exercising each day—these are positive habits that can help motivate students in the right direction while taking the focus off of the grade or score.

  • Discuss the true purpose of a standardized test and, in turn, remove some of the burden from elementary schoolers. Of course, parents and teachers do not want to convey the message that these exams do not matter; however, we can ease the anxiety by reminding children that a test score is meant to provide data for the school—it is not meant to target or torment the children that may happen to underperform. Again, keep them focused on aspects or contributors that they can control, like sleep, nutrition, self-motivation, and positivity.

  • Parents and teachers can help elementary schoolers by providing them with several different test-taking strategies or tips. Since children in elementary school are just beginning to get a taste of exams or standardized tests, they are likely less familiar with all of the different strategies and practices that they can employ during a lengthy assessment. Encourage them to use the following skills:

    • Tell them they should consider reading the questions first so that they know what they are to be looking out for ahead of beginning the reading or excerpt.
    • Encourage students to take their time when working through the assessment. If they are concerned about running out of time, skip difficult questions or sections and answer the easiest questions first. This will not only help students to knock out portions of the assessment, but it will give them a dose of motivation, self-assurance, and positivity in knowing that some of their answers came easily.
    • Have children practice eliminating answer options that they know are incorrect. This practice helps to remove the distractibility factor that multiple choice questions can have.
    • Teachers should tell students ahead of time that they will provide time updates or occasional countdowns during testing so that students can gauge how diligently they are working throughout the exam. A time check not only tells students how much time is remaining in the session, but also allows students to modify their work pace. This information helps students complete all questions and take more time reading carefully and checking answers if necessary.

How to Manage Testing Time: For Middle School Students

This time of year can be met with mixed emotions from students. Yes, spring break is on the here, which gives students, parents, and teachers a brief, but much-needed reprieve from the stressful school day.

Yet spring is also the time in which schools are gearing up for testing season. For middle schoolers, these tests may include benchmark assessments to gauge math and reading growth, like Map-M and Map-R. Middle schoolers will also be taking the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) assessment. Because of the “high-stakes” mentality associated with these sorts of exams, the weeks leading up to and during testing can be rather stressful for students, parents, and teachers. However, there are strategies that parents and teachers can use to help middle school learners prepare for and thrive during these tests without becoming overwhelmed by stress or pressure.

  • Remind middle schoolers of strategies and routines that are within their control. Test-taking can be stressful due to the uncertainty and lack of control. To boost confidence and instill beneficial practices, talk to students about how they can put their best foot forward before even sitting down to take the exam.
    • Jumpstart their day with a healthy, filling breakfast that will keep middle schoolers fueled through the morning. Parents and teachers may want to consider providing students with a small snack during testing to keep the hunger edge off. Check with the school about their protocol for snacks while testing and consider packing a water bottle with your child as well. Hunger and thirst can be major distractions when it comes to learning, so a little pick-me-up might go a long way with keeping middle schoolers motivated and attentive during a morning of testing.
    • For any number of reasons, likely technology-related stimuli, middle schoolers are getting less and less sleep these days. Breaking poor sleeping habits can take a while before the body truly adjusts to a new schedule. Take action early by encouraging middle schoolers to adhere to a 7-8 hour sleep schedule leading up to assessment week. A regular sleep and wake time helps the body adjust to a healthy circadian rhythm, which will stave off any fatigue and keep students alert and focused during testing.
    • Think positive thoughts. Remind students that a test is simply one indicator of learning. And while we would like middle schoolers to take their testing seriously, we do not want them to be consumed with anxiety and stress. The mantra “do your best, forget the rest” helps learners to focus more on genuine effort and less on perfection or final scores.

  • Annotating is a practice that middle schoolers have probably been honing throughout the school year. Obviously, close reading and analytical thinking skills are beneficial across content areas—annotating is a practice that students are completing in science, history, English, and even math. Additionally, close reading and annotating can greatly help students during assessments as well.
  • A helpful strategy is to provide students with practices in which they annotate test questions, text excerpts, and written response prompts. The key is to help students identify what a question, answer option, or prompt is truly asking. By highlighting key words, breaking down questions, or rephrasing questions, students are better able to focus their thinking.

  • Parents should also remind middle schoolers about any 504 or IEP accommodations that they should be granted for testing. Some assessments, like PARCC, do not allow for certain accommodations; however, accommodations apply during other tests. Parents, children, and teachers must be on the same page when it comes to testing accommodations for major exams or standardized tests. When in doubt, ask—this way children know what to expect on exam day and are not thrown off by a possible lack of accommodations.

More Testing Accommodations

Testing accommodations in the classroom are essential for student success. Not only should the accommodations provide support for students to access material and demonstrate mastery, they should also foster a sense of confidence. When students feel successful on an assessment, that confidence can bolster future success and motivate students that may have been discouraged by their learning differences. Of course, accommodations should be tailored to each learner’s specific needs—that is why plans are called IEPs, or individualized education programs. As much as these tools vary for each individual student, there are certain accommodations that are known to assist certain styles of learners better than others.

ADD/ADHD Learners:

Again, every learner is different, so each student with ADD and ADHD exhibits different behaviors and strengths. As much as everyone has different needs, students with ADHD, who exhibit certain behaviors more frequently, can benefit from a myriad of different testing accommodations.

Reduced distractions during testing can greatly help students with attention difficulties. This accommodation can vary depending on the classroom environment. For many, as long as the class is co-taught or has a paraeducator, students with ADHD or ADD should be pulled out into a smaller group setting for testing. This removes the unnecessary distractions that a full classroom can present.

If pull-out groups are not an option, consider moving the student to the front or side of the classroom where he/she will be less inclined to look around or daze off. Another tip for reduced distractions during testing is to instruct students to simply flip the assessment over when finished, as opposed to walking up to turn it in. Students with ADHD can easily become distracted or even discouraged if others are finishing the assessment faster than they are. Additionally, seat students away from windows or within view of the door or hallway. Because students with ADHD struggle to refocus when distracted, anything from a dog walking outside to a peer passing through the hallways can deter their focus.

Consider playing soft, slow, instrumental music or nature sounds in the background while students are testing. This will drown out any compulsive pencil tapping, chair screeching, or leg-shaking. Be sure that the music or sounds do not have any lyrics or distractibility factor.

Different seating options can provide the slight mobility that students may need when testing. Something as simple as providing students with the option to sit on stools, yoga balls, floor cushions, or to stand while testing can alleviate the jitters or restlessness that some students with ADHD experience. Tactile items such as fidget cubes, moldable erasers, or stress balls can help students to focus, as well. Just be sure to monitor their use so that they work to expel energy and channel focus, rather than distract students further.

If planning allows, consider breaking up longer unit assessments into multiple days or class periods. For instance, if an exam involves multiple choice responses, short answer, and written responses, see about allowing students to submit the test in two parts over separate days. This allows students to maintain focus for each section and regroup before moving into the lengthier writing portion. This is a best practice, not only for students with attention issues, but for all learners because it keeps students’ focus from straying. Splitting an assessment up over two days allows students to refocus and maintain motivation since they are not rushing through it or eager to get it over with.

When issuing an assessment with long reading passages or a lot of the text on each page, modify the visual aspect of the exam so that students with attention difficulties are not discouraged or overwhelmed by the amount of text on the page. Simply increasing the font and/or margin size can help to visually split the test into multiple chunks or pages. This approach helps students to focus their attention on fewer questions or shorter texts from page to page, prompting them to limit their focus to one question at a time.

Testing Accommodations

Testing accommodations should help students two-fold. Accommodations should provide support for students to access material and demonstrate mastery, and they should also foster a sense of confidence and boost students’ ability to advocate for themselves. When students feel successful, especially on an assessment, that confidence is magnified and motivates students that may have been discouraged by their learning differences. It is likely that students who struggle with a learning disability look unfavorably at their ability to test well. This does not have to be the case. With testing accommodations, students can reach their full potential and truly thrive.

Executive Functions Disorder:

Of course, accommodations should be tailored to each learner’s specific needs—that is why plans are called IEPs, or individualized education programs. These tools are tailored to each individual student, as there are certain accommodations that are known to assist certain styles of learners better than others. For students with executive function difficulties, testing accommodations can changes testing woes into wins.

Because students with executive functioning disorder struggle specifically with tasks involving higher-level thinking skills, testing accommodations remove unnecessary obstacles so that students can demonstrate an accurate picture of their knowledge. For example, some students may lack confidence when it comes to multiple choice questions. It is not that he/she lacks the knowledge or skills to arrive at the correct answer, it is simply that the ability to eliminate incorrect answers becomes a major distraction.

Provide students with three answer options as opposed to four—this makes the task of elimination less daunting.

Prompt students to physically cross or scratch out the answers that they know are incorrect; reminding them of this test-taking strategy can sometimes be all the help students need.

Allow students to mark or bubble their options right on the test booklet, as opposed to transferring them to a Scantron or bubble sheet. This eliminates the possibility that they will bubble the wrong answer or unintentionally skip questions.

Encourage students to highlight, underline, or mark certain parts of the question or answer options that stand out as crucial to the question. For example, if a question asks “What is not one of the author’s purposes for writing the text?” prompt students to recognize and mark the word not to reinforce the fact that they are looking for a non-answer.

Practice explicit, direct instruction of common testing terms such as analyze, organize, complete, develop, process, etc. These concepts are difficult for all students in the sense that they require abstract thinking. However, for students with executive functioning disorder, these types of cognitive skills are the precise functions that they struggle with specifically. If a test question asks them to “assess the use of the term” consider rewording the question or providing a footnote to explain what you mean by assess.

If students are asked to organize a paragraph in response to a prompt, provide them with a graphic organizer. This small modification helps students to get the ball rolling when constructing their response. They are still tasked with writing the response; however, the intimidation factor is eased by the fact that they have a scaffold form which to work.

Similarly, providing students with sentence frames in addition to a graphic organizer can help ease the stress of a written response. Since executive function disorder is often marked by the inability to or difficulty with organizing thoughts and conveying them in written form, sentence frames provide students with a starting point and allow them to show that they have mastered the concept without the cognitive output interfering.

Standardized Testing: Teacher Tips

rest-413103_1280

The wise Benjamin Franklin once said that two things in life are guaranteed—death and taxes. Educators in the public school system would likely vote to add standardized testing to that list of guarantees. Few things dichotomize the staff lounge like the discussion surrounding the use of high-stakes tests. While both sides of the long-held debate argue vehemently for the continued use or abolishment of said standardized assessments, one thing is certain—our students, teachers, administrators, and schools will be measured by standardized tests.

With such an inevitable, and potentially stressful, certainty looming over the heads of our students, one major concern for teachers is how to alleviate test anxiety. Here are a few tips:

  1. Provide your students with test-taking strategies prior to the discussion of a major assessment. Students are likely to feel at ease when they are armed with copious strategies for tackling test questions. Prep students in advance so that the strategies are less “teaching to the test” and taught more as essential academic skills for success in higher education.
  2. Another valuable test-taking skill for all content areas involves note-taking. Strategic note-taking is not an innate skill—it must be introduced and practiced in order to master the practice successfully. Make sure that students know how to abbreviate, condense, and paraphrase main ideas and concepts. As many different strategies as there are for taking notes, there are wrong ways to do it, as well. Teaching what not to do when taking class notes can also be beneficial for students. There is no need to copy notes word-for-word; spend the time absorbing and noting new information.
  3. Provide support for practicing time management skills. This could mean allowing study sessions during class, creating a realistic study schedule or calendar, or making creative outlines and checklists for larger unit tests. Also, encourage students to space out their studying and reviewing over several days. A study log is another beneficial way to ensure that students are accountable for their own preparation before a large assessment. Taking several small breaks during a study session can help with attention span, as well.
  4. Encourage students to reread directions and seek clarification if the directions or questions are creating confusion. Guessing, stressing, or spending too much time on complicated instructions can increase test anxiety. Similarly, encourage students to skip questions that are confusing. Remind them that they can always go back and select an answer later on in the testing session. But to focus on a confusing question for too long will not only waste time, it will cause frustration and stress.
  5. Reading the questions prior to the excerpt is also a method to save time. When students know what they are looking for, they are able to work through the text or excerpt more efficiently. Also, remind students to read each question carefully, being sure to understand what is being asked before seeking the answer. Often times, in an effort to save time, students may rush through the questions and choose the initial gut response. Remind them to read questions carefully and completely.
  6. Lastly, when in doubt, remind students to use the “process of elimination” method. Especially when questions are more confusing than others, encourage them to cross off answer options that they know cannot be correct. Then, when necessary, take an educated guess of the remaining options.

When it comes to standardized tests, forewarned is forearmed. Introduce your students to these helpful tips and give them the advantage at test time.

Standardized Testing: A Parent’s Guide

board-361516_1280

Whether a proponent of the practice or not, standardized testing is a certain reality for parents, students, and teachers in America’s public educational system. While both sides of the long-held debate argue vehemently for the continued use or abolishment of such high-stakes assessments, one thing is certain—our children, teachers, administrators, and schools will be measured by standardized tests. Aside from exercising your parental right to “opt out” of such state mandated assessments, which thousands of families have decided to do in recent years, what can parents do to ease the inevitable stress associated with these high-stakes tests?  

Well, depending on your child’s age and learning circumstances, the conversations surrounding standardized testing will vary. For children and teens with testing anxiety or other learning difficulties, it is most important to put your child at ease. As a parent, the last thing that you want to witness is your child’s worry or discomfort.

When testing becomes a part of the school year, allow your child to steer the conversation. Answer their questions honestly and validate their concerns. Yes, these tests matter; no, these tests do not define your abilities. Discuss how such assessments are just one measure of some of the things that they have learned this year. Explain to your child that the importance of an assessment is to acknowledge what they know—not necessarily to focus on what they do not know. Keeping the focus on the positive helps to reduce test anxiety and ease the worry of answering incorrectly. Remind your child that his strengths far exceed the measures of such exams.  

For the “perfectionist” child, standardized tests can be a rather hefty focus. Even if parents minimize the importance of these assessments, the perfectionist will seek success. Children who are used to doing well will inevitably put pressure on themselves when completing an assessment such as this. In this case, provide your “high flyer” with test-taking strategies. These tips not only assist during the test, but they also provide your child with the confidence they need to alleviate some of the pressure associated with acing the exam.

  • For reading comprehension sections, encourage your child to read the questions prior to the excerpt. This will prepare students as they read, and help them to be aware of what to look for in the text. Reading the questions prior to the excerpt is also a method to save time. When students know what they are looking for, they are able to work through the text or excerpt more efficiently.
  • Tell your child to mark, then skip, questions that are confusing. Remind them that they can always go back and select an answer later on in the testing session. But to focus on a confusing question for too long will not only waste time, it will also cause frustration and stress.
  • Remind your child to read each question carefully, being sure to understand what is being asked before seeking the answer. Often times, in an effort to save time, students may rush through the questions and choose the initial gut response. Remind them to read questions carefully and completely.
  • When in doubt, remind your child to use the “process of elimination” method. Especially when questions are more confusing than others, encourage children to cross off answer options that they know cannot be correct. Then, when necessary, take an educated guess from the remaining options.