Wouldn’t it be nice if we could eliminate standardized testing from our educational system? I hope that one day that will be a reality. Until then, regardless of how we feel about state testing, we want to make sure that we are preparing our students to be as successful as possible on the state test. One way you can do that is to teach your students effective test-taking strategies.
In this blog post, I will share seven of my favorite test taking strategies for upper elementary students.
What are test taking strategies?
A test taking strategy is a specific strategy that will help your students be successful on a standardized test. It’s important for students to realize that the reading they do on standardized tests is not like the reading they do in real life. This means we need to teach them strategies that are specific to taking standardized tests.
Why do I need to teach test taking strategies to my students?
I get it. I don’t like standardized testing very much either. Spending so much time focused on test prep can be frustrating for both teachers and students. Standardized testing is an unfair and inauthentic way to assess student learning. But unfortunately, it is currently a part of our educational system. Even if we don’t agree with it, we want students to feel prepared and confident on test day. This means we need to make sure our students are equipped with strategies that will help them succeed on their state test.
How do I teach test taking strategies to my students?
You should teach test taking strategies to your students in the exact same way you teach everything else. In small bite-sized lessons with a clear objective and plenty of time for students to practice independently before test day.
Some test prep strategies I will teach whole group and there are other strategies that might need to be taught in small group because not every student needs that particular strategy.
Here are 7 test taking strategies that will help your students prepare for their end-of-year state test.
Strategy #1: Know the Elements of a Standardized Test
Before you go all in on on test prep and spend hours reading practice passages and answering multiple-choice questions and having students bubble in answer sheets all day every day, make sure students understand the elements that will be included on your state-specific standardized test.
Familiarity is an important part of test prep. Identifying the elements of your state’s standardized test should be one of the first test-prep lessons you teach. You don’t want any surprises on test day so even if your students are familiar with reading passages and answering multiple choice questions, you want them the understand as much of what they will see on test day.
One of the best ways to teach this strategy is to find a previously released state test and go through each element. Let students know what they will see on the test and you can also explain how understanding the format of the test can help them best prepare for test day.
Things you might want to point out to your students:
- The number of reading passages they will see
- The genres of reading passages they will most likely see
- The number of questions per passage and the total number of questions they’ll see on the test
- An example of how the directions are worded and what they need to pay attention to in the directions
- What the test booklet might look like and if there is a separate answer sheet
- How and where they will record their answers
- What support material they will have access to (scratch paper, dictionaries, online tools etc.)
The more students know about the test, the easier it will be for them to prepare for it in the weeks leading up to the test.
Strategy #2: Pace Yourself
This is a strategy you will want to teach your students before you do a ton of practice tests. This will give students a chance to actually apply this strategy while they practice.
The goal of this strategy is to help students create a pacing plan to use on test day. You don’t want your students to run out of time, and you also don’t want them to feel rushed and quickly read through the test and answer the questions.
The best way to relieve any sort of time-limit worries is to break it down and create a pacing plan.
In order to help students do this, you’ll need to know how much time students have to take the test and how many passages are included on the test.
This is how I teach students to pace themselves.
The first thing we do is identify how much time they want to have at the end to review their answer choices, look over the test, and double-check everything before they turn it in. I typically suggest students save 30 minutes at the end to review the test.
Now you need to subtract that time from the total time they have. When I taught in Texas, students had four hours to take the STAAR test so we would take 4 hours and subtract 30 minutes. Now we know that we have 3 hours and 30 minutes to spend taking the test and getting through all the passages/questions.
The next thing you need to do is tell students how many passages they can expect to see on the test. If there are 5 passages, you will take the 3 hours and 30 minutes and divide it by five. This tells you how much time students can spend reading each passage and answer each question set.
If students have 3 hours and 30 minutes to get through 5 passages this means they can spend 42 minutes per passage and question set.
This helps give students a general time frame to stick to for each section of the text.
NOTE: I don’t like to break it down much more than this. There is no need to tell students how much time to spend on each question. Some passages will be shorter/quicker to read. Some questions will require less thinking/searching for evidence. Students don’t need to figure out the exact amount of time to spend on each question. That would just stress them out. But having a general idea of how much time to spend on each passage/question set can be helpful.
Strategy #3: Right There Questions vs. Thinking Questions
I like to teach students to categorize questions into two different types. Right There Questions and Thinking Questions.
- Right There Questions are the questions with answers that can be found in the text. The answer is literally RIGHT THERE. Students know that if it is a right there question, they are going to have to go back and reread a portion of the text to figure out the answer. For example:
- What happened after…
- Who was responsible for…
- According to the map on page…
- When did….
- Thinking Questions are the questions that don’t have answers directly found in the text. Students will need to THINK in order to come up with the answer. Students will have to combine text evidence with their own personal knowledge and critical thinking skills in order to come up with the answer. For example:
- Which example is the best summary of the selection?
- What can you infer about _____?
- What is the theme of this selection?
- Why did the author include….
We often tell students to go back to the text to find their answer, but not every answer can be found directly in the text. Some students will spend an excessive amount of time searching for answers that can’t even be found in the text.
Make sure students know the difference between Right There and Thinking Questions. This will help them come up with an effective plan to answer each question.
Strategy #4: Pay Attention to Word Choice Used in the Questions
This one is important. We want students to pay close attention to the words used in the multiple-choice questions. Often times there are words used that can act as a clue and direct students to a specific section of text where they could find the answer. Or there might be a specific word used that could help students eliminate an answer choice.
I would encourage you to look through your state’s specific test and see which words you see frequently pop up in questions.
Here are some that you might see on your state test that you’ll want to point out to students.
- Most or Best – I bet your students will see this one on the test. When students see these words, it’s important that they realize they are asking them to determine the highest quality option or the answer choice that is better than the others. This means that there might be TWO answer choices taht could be correct, but students are being asked to select the BEST.
- Based on (or according to) – When students see this phrase used in a question, the question is telling them where to go in the text to find the answer. Make sure students know they should return to this portion of the text. It’s important for students to realize that there might be other pieces of evidnece that they could use to answer this question, but the test creator only wants them to use the information located in a certain section of text.
- Suggests or Supports – When students see these words they are a clue that they are looking for a detail in the text that is connected to the idea mentioned in the question. They are basically looking for the text evidence that supports what is mentioned in the question.
These are just some words you might want to point out to your students. The goal of this strategy is for students to think like the “test creator” when they see important signal words used in test questions.
Strategy #5: Answer the Question Using Your Own Words First
This strategy is great and works on any type of standardized test. You want to teach your students to answer the question using their own words before they look at the multiple-choice options. Sometimes students can be distracted or influenced by the multiple-choice options. In fact, test creators will intentionally throw in “distractor” questions with the intent of trying to distract students from the right answer.
To help your students feel confident in their answer choice, have them get in the habit of covering up the multiple-choice answer options.
Then read the question.
Then answer the question using their own words.
Then see how their answer compares to the multiple-choice options.
If they don’t see an answer choice that matches up with their own answer, then this means they need to go back and reread a portion of the text and look for different evidence.
Strategy #6: Don’t Forget to Bubble In!
While this may seem like a silly strategy to spend time on, it is extremely important. And I can’t tell you the number of standardized tests I’ve proctored where I’ve seen students make mistakes bubbling on their answer sheet.
I always like to tell my students that it doesn’t matter if they know all the correct answers on the test, if they don’t know how to correctly bubble in the answers on the answer sheet they won’t get credit.
If your students are taking a paper-pencil test and will be filling in bubbles, then do at least one explicit test prep lesson on how to correctly fill in the bubbles… even fifth graders can forget how to do this part correctly.
Strategy #7: A Pep-Talk for Confidence
I’ve saved the best for last. This is my favorite test-prep strategy to teach students. Ultimately we want our students to feel confident on test day. One of the best ways to do that is to teach them how to give themselves a pep-talk. That way in the days leading up to the test, or on actual test day, students know the words to use in their self-talk to pump themselves up for the test.
When you teach this lesson, you can have students brainstorm sayings, mantras, or phrases they can repeat to themselves on test day. You can create a giant anchor chart with all their ideas. You can even have students write a letter to themselves or put their favorite positive saying on a post-it to stick on their desk.
Anything that will remind students to think positively about the test.
Here are a few phrases you might want to have your students repeat to themselves before test day:
- I am prepared for this test.
- I know I am a great reader.
- I have worked hard and I am ready.
- No matter how I do, I am really proud of all my hard work this year.
Hopefully you find these seven test taking strategies helpful and are excited about teaching them to your students. If you’d like even more test taking strategies similar to these, you can check out my 15 Test Taking Strategies resource on TPT. It includes all of these lessons, plus 8 more.