State testing season causes many emotions for teachers and students alike. For teachers—it can feel like the measure of one’s success comes down to the state assessment. For students—it can feel like the decision regarding promotion or retention hinges on the results of the state assessment. I’ve had students shut down, cry, and vomit during state assessments.
As educators, there are several strategies we can use to make state testing season more bearable and even, dare I say it, fun.
- Narrate the purpose, not the product.
- Create a themed competition.
- Be clear on the priorities.
NARRATE THE PURPOSE, NOT THE PRODUCT
In 2014, five psychology professors published their research titled, Boring but Important: A Self-Transcendent Purpose for Learning Fosters Academic Self-Regulation. The gist of their research is that when teachers foster a self-transcendent purpose for learning (e.g., connecting work completion or test preparation to one’s future potential to impact the world or help others) students learn the material better and have increased stamina during tasks that most students would consider boring. Their research is particularly pertinent to test-prep season as the researchers focused specifically on learning “tedious test review materials.”
As we prepare students to do their best and to demonstrate both the knowledge and the habits they have acquired throughout the year, let us ground the assessments in the PURPOSE, not the PRODUCT (aka: the assessment itself). Let our messaging focus less on earning a mastery or an advanced score on the 6th grade math state assessment. Instead let our messaging sound more like, “Though that is an excellent achievement, it is about much more. It’s about showing yourself, the state, and the world all of the knowledge you have built this year and how that knowledge, along with your habits of being meticulous and disciplined, are going to change the world and help others.”
CREATE A THEMED COMPETITION
(Disclaimer: If you are someone who does not like or want to dress up testing with themes and games, skip to point #3. I recognize it is definitely not for everyone or every school. These are a couple ways that I have approached testing seasons in the past while working at Democracy Prep Baton Rouge and Henderson Collegiate.)
I often hear statements like: “It’s just so long for them to sit and concentrate. They can’t sit and stare at a screen for that long. To ask kids to sit still and complete a task for that long is unreasonable.” Don’t get me wrong—pacing the room and watching students take multiple state assessments can feel like an eternity. However, students are able to sit and stare at screens for hours when playing Fortnite or watching videos of people playing Fortnite. What’s the difference? Those things are FUN! There is a clear theme (i.e., v-bucks, skins, modes, etc.) and there is a clear competition. When we apply this same mentality to state assessments, we too can make it feel like a themed competition rather than never-ending hours of sitting and testing.
PRO TIPS for ensuring this goes well:
- First, try to make the theme relevant to either the age group or current events. Some themes I’ve used in the past include the Olympics, World Cup, Hunger Games (sounds slightly terrifying but we made it kid-friendly and fun), and the Incredibles.
- Second, use teacher discretion. Remember, you want to boost students’ morale and confidence before the state assessment; so, use your discretion with when to modify assignments to ensure all students are feeling successful and different classes are earning the top place throughout the weeks of test preparation.
Below are two examples, along with logistics and free resources for you to download!
- Class Routines – Every class follows a similar routine.
- “Warm-Up” = mini-lesson or review of yesterday’s material
- “Daily Training” = practice today’s skill in groups, pairs or solo
- “Medal Event” = mini quiz, typically assessing one standard
- Individual Medals – On the “medal event” students earn individual medals and track them on a poster in the room or hallway (you can either get different color stickers to represent each medal or do 3 stars for gold, 2 for silver, 1 for bronze)
- Score of 70-79 = Bronze Medal
- Score of 80-89 = Silver Medal
- Score of 90-100 = Gold Medal
- Country Medals – students’ classes were renamed countries and each day we took the class averages from the medal events.
- Top Average = that country earned gold
- Second Place Average = that country earned silver
- Third Place Average = that country earned bronze
- Charts/Bulletin Boards/Other
- Incentive Chart = Stickers for tracking individual medals on an in-classroom or hallway poster
Podium Bulletin Board = To show which country earned gold/silver/bronze for each of the subjects (pictured above on the left)
Medal Count Bulletin Board = To show the total medal counts for each country (pictured above on the right)
Opening Ceremonies = Here is an example script (and teacher roles) for conducting the opening ceremonies
Logistics (unless otherwise noted below, logistics are the same as the above olympics example; however, we changed the names to align with our theme):
- Class Routines – The daily assessments were called “Tribute Tests” instead of medal events.
- Whole School Routines – We had weekly visits from members of “The Capitol” (pictured above), who told the students how they were going to attempt to trick them.
- Tribute Awards – See Testing Games Stickers here.
- District Awards
- Posters/Bulletin Boards
- Posters = Stickers for tracking individual tribute awards (in classroom or hallway)
District Bulletin Board = To show the rankings for each district (aka: grade level)
BE CLEAR ON THE PRIORITIES
In addition to reviewing content, there are so many habits that teachers and students could focus on when preparing for state assessments. Here is my process for determining our yearly priorities:
- Take the practice or released state assessment myself.
- Ask myself, “What habits would students need to have to do well on this assessment?”
- Ask myself, “Which of those habits are my students’ strengths?” (Then I note these to celebrate, but they are NOT the priorities because we already have them down!)
- Ask myself, “Which of those habits do my students need to strengthen?”
- THESE THEN BECOME OUR PRIORITIES!
Regardless of the theme, we clearly stated our assessment priorities to students and all staff members. This ensured that we were all sending the same message all of the time. The priorities would be slightly different each year, depending on the habits our students needed to strengthen.
- Example in left picture
- We prioritized pacing, meticulous work and stamina. After the test was complete, teachers shout out students who did those things well and their name was displayed publicly until the next day.
- Example in right picture
- We prioritized accuracy and effort, focus and perseverance, and stamina and posture. Teacher used these individual desk trackers during the test preparation weeks.
- We used many inspirational videos to teach students the habits.
Meghan Thompson joined Teach For America in 2008 and began her career in education as a 9th-12th Special Education Teacher in Charlotte, NC. In 2010, she was a member of the founding team at Henderson Collegiate (a school that has ranked in the top 3.5% of all NC public schools for the past 4 years). In 2014, she was a member of the founding team at Democracy Prep Baton Rouge and throughout her time at DPBR served as a middle school ELA teacher, middle school math teacher and the Middle School Campus Director.