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Literacy Partners

Dreading Test Prep? There’s a Good Reason

Aaah, April — a month when we see signs of spring renewal — spring break offers time for rest and relaxation — and then testing season begins. This year like everything else, state testing will be different. At the very least, it will be shorter than other years, and at most, it could be canceled altogether. But like many educators, you may still feel the pressure to prepare for whatever form it takes.

Test prep, however, does not spark joy in my book.

How about you?

If test prep doesn’t spark joy for you either, here’s an invitation to rethink your approach.

I probably don’t have to convince you of the many problems that come with standardized testing. California State Superintendent, Tony Thurmond, sums up the biggest issues in his response to the U.S. Department of Education’s guidance on state testing:

“Standardized tests are imperfect measures at best and often provide snapshots of student performance that are far too narrow to help educators in any given year, let alone during a once-in-a-lifetime global pandemic.

Most years, the results of statewide testing simply reflect the deep and systemic inequities that have placed generations of students at a historic, ongoing academic disadvantage. Those are the students whose families have been hit hardest by COVID-19—households in poverty and communities of color—and every resource dedicated to taking a test is a resource that could be better spent on helping students recover from this crisis and accelerate learning.”

As Superintendent Thurmond stated, standardized tests are imperfect measures in any given year. Ask any teacher, and they can probably name at least five more problems not mentioned in this statement. Given the questionable value of these tests, how much time should you dedicate to preparing?

As Superintendent Thurmond stated, standardized tests are imperfect measures in any given year. Ask any teacher, and they can probably name at least five more problems not mentioned in this statement. Given the questionable value of these tests, how much time should you dedicate to preparing?

Putting aside the problematic nature of the test themselves, there are some other considerations for spending time on test prep activities. To be clear, I mean activities like taking practice tests or focusing solely on test-like questions and essays. (Some folks view authentic and rich learning experiences as the only test prep necessary. Read about how that went for a Chicago public school here.)

  1. Test prep can raise students’ anxiety, not to mention the teacher’s! This hinders actual learning as well as test performance.
  2. Too much test prep can result in diminishing returns. In other words, more is not better. You may have already seen this in your classroom or experienced it in your life. Kids have been taking practice tests or doing test-like activities for so long that by the time the real test comes around, they’re done.
  3. Test prep activities take away time from learning experiences that actually help children with academic achievement. Time has always been a scarcity in classrooms and even more so now with online and hybrid schedules. If kids are practicing for a test, what are they missing out on?
  4. The organizers at FairTest have shown how test prep can inadvertently feed into the school-to-prison pipeline. Let’s be honest; test prep can be less than engaging and even demoralizing. This leads to boredom or frustration, leading to acting out, and we know what happens from there. (For more detailed information and a link to the PDF below, click here.)

You may be saying, “I hear you, but I need to do something.”

Here are some tips for supporting kids while reducing harm.

  1. Support and protect kids’ independent reading time. You already know the benefits of independent reading for academic achievement, but having the stamina to read for long stretches will also help students with stamina when they’re taking a test.
  2. Embed the skills students need in components like read-aloud or shared reading. You’re giving them what they need in a way that’s still joyful.
  3. Teach kids the specifics of the testing genre in a workshop structure, helping them understand how a passage on a test differs from reading in the wild.
  4. Teach kids about the specific tools they have available to them and how to use them. Vertical articulation here can help minimize wasted time and repetition of skills kids may already know. Third graders won’t be familiar with how to use the highlighter, but by the time students are in fifth grade or middle school, they may need just a quick reminder.

State testing may or may not be coming to a school near you, but hopefully, this has helped you think about ways you can prepare that will feel more joyful than dreadful.

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