How to Survive Standardized Testing Without Losing Your Mind

testing season

Anyone who knows me knows that I positively LOATHE standardized testing. I hate the pressure that it puts on students, teachers, and schools. I abhor how it’s used to judge academic achievement and punish schools that need the most additional resources. And most of all, I hate the expectation that teachers should put regular instruction to the side in order to prepare students for a test that is biased, unrealistic, and in the case of my home state of Texas, written two grade levels above a student’s reading level!

Part One, or: That One Time I Gave in to the Standardized Testing Machine

Live footage of my class during my first year of test prep

My first year of teaching, I definitely succumbed to the pressure that our state test, the STAAR, puts on teachers. Once January rolled around, I started to Panic with a capital P. Because the STAAR test is promotional in fifth grade, my students had to pass it in order to go onto fifth grade. (Or at least, I thought they did. I soon realized that this “promotional standard” is a joke, and that students who fail the test end up getting promoted anyways–but not after being forced to take a four-hour test three times.)

To deal with the pressure, I did what I thought I was supposed to do. I listened to guidance from other sources and I started preparing my kids for THE TEST. We stopped reading our class novel, despite that easily being the best part of our reading block. We read more passages than you could count, despite the fact that they were mind-numbingly boring and the questions that went along with them were oftentimes not even aligned to the test. My entire grade level even, in a move that was so incredibly stupid it now pains me to talk about, pulled “struggling” students in from recess and ancillary class to have them do more prep. In the weeks leading up to the test, I was seeing some students for their normal 90-minute reading block; for the 25 minutes of recess; for the 45 minute ancillary class; and for an hour of tutorials after school. Honestly, it’s a miracle that we all survived that much time together.

When my students took the test in late March, I was freaking out. I remember actively monitoring, panicking all the while about how they would perform. I anxiously waited for weeks to get the scores back and find out which students passed, and which students would re-take the test in two weeks (because we all know that the solution to failing a test is just to take another test!).

And what did all this stress get me? A fat bunch of nothing. My kids did fine on the test. Not amazing, but I was also a first-year teacher who, frankly, was figuring it out as I went. I had worried for nothing, because at the end of the day, my students were the ones taking the test, not me. I couldn’t control how they felt that day. I couldn’t control what passages ended up on the test (which is problematic, because background knowledge is huge when it comes to comprehending new texts). But in my quest to PREPARE THEM AT ALL COSTS, I had actually sacrificed things that I did have control over. I have control over what books to read with my kids, and I tossed authentic literature aside in order in favor of dry, white-washed passages. I was frustrated that students were tuning me out, but honestly, who was I to blame them?

In the years since that first year testing debacle, I have seriously overhauled how I approach standardized testing “season.” I truly believe that if you teach your students to love reading, they will read more and read better. I also believe that if you teach your students the skills, strategies, and standards they need to know throughout the school year, they will be amply prepared for a state test. And finally, I believe that if you keep your instruction engaging, relevant, and fun, students will be more invested in what they’re learning and ultimately perform better.

Part Two, or: How I Practice What I Preach

I might have had too much fun preparing this grave for our test burdens…

My current approach to test “prep” is to do as little as humanly possible. I’m serious. I have seen firsthand that my students are the most engaged and participatory when–gasp!–we are doing something fun or reading something that they enjoy. Why would I want to put that aside, even for just a few weeks, for the sake of preparing them for a test?

As a result, I have created something called “Super STAAR Mondays.” On these days (and I only do four or five of them), we practice a skill that is somehow related to the test. The catch is that the way we practice is fun, and the texts we read are authentic. Long gone are my days of using an overpriced, unaligned workbook full of dull passages about clam chowder (this was a real thing we read about once).

Here’s an example of what we did for Super STAAR Mondays last year:

  • Analyzed what test questions are REALLY asking by completing a question sort with a group (you can see it here)
  • Completed an escape room to practice our strategies of determining the meaning of unknown words
  • Read a NewsELA article about gun control, answered STAAR aligned questions, and played grudgeball to review our answers (bonus: we had a class discussion about our opinions afterwards!)

All the while, we were still doing normal class stuff. We were still reading a novel together. We were still enjoying independent reading time every single day. We were still doing projects to demonstrate what we were learning–in the weeks before STAAR last year, students were completing a biography project on a trailblazer of their choosing! Our classroom was a fun, exciting place to be, and we refused to let the test kill our vibe.

The very last Super STAAR Monday we had was the day before our state test. I knew that students were likely feeling some pressure about the test, despite my best efforts to downplay its importance, so I dedicated our class to answering their questions, discussing their concerns, and pumping themselves up before test day. The schedule of that class period looked like this:

  • Students jotted down a question they have about the test
    • Some of them were real questions (How many questions are there?)
    • Some of them were really great questions (Why do we have to take this stupid test?)
  • Students wrote out a worry they have about the test
    • Examples of worries students wrote included: I will fail, I will run out of time, etc.
    • After students wrote their concerns, we participated in a Bury Your Burdens ceremony. Students literally ripped up their worry and we buried the shreds in a “grave.” (See the picture above for a visual)
  • Students wrote themselves a personalized note to read the morning of the test
    • I collected these notes and placed them on their desk on test day
    • Some of them had general pump-up notes, but others included personalized reminders (ex: don’t forget to take a breath between stories)
    • This was a great way for kids to think about what they would need on test day!

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The final piece of this was writing each student a  letter to deliver on test day. This did take some time, but ultimately, it was worth it. Letting my kids know that I believed in them and being able to deliver personalized reminders to my students went a long way in calming their nerves and putting them in a good mental headspace before they took the test.

After the test, we celebrate by opening up gift bags full of new books for our classroom library (because books are ALWAYS the right reward!). I tell my students that if every student shows strategies on the test, we will get to open the bags and enjoy the books inside. By tying the reward to effort instead of growth or a grade, I make it so that every student can contribute towards the class receiving the prize!

Part Three, or: How Do You Survive?

I really hope that this somewhat lengthy post is helpful to you as you head into standardized testing. I know that the test can put a lot of stress on you and your students, but I really urge you to not give into the pressure. If you’ve been doing your job of teaching kids all year, then your kids will do fine, and it’s not worth it to make your students hate school (and further associate school with tests) for the sake of squeezing in more prep.

If you have tips or strategies that have worked well for you, please drop them in the comments below! You can also reach out to me on Instagram (@booksandbeyonce)

P.S. For more of my thoughts on standardized testing, click here! 

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