{Gasp! — with hand over mouth}  Did she just say ‘test score growth’?  I know, I know, improving school-wide test scores is that unmentionable topic teachers and administrators secretly want, but are not supposed to talk about.  We truly don’t believe in “teaching to the test.”  We’ve all read Kelly Gallagher’s “I Will Not Teach to the Test” and agree whole-heartedly that it is infinitely more important to create well-rounded citizens who are capable of becoming independent thinkers and learners ready for the real world, than to simply teach our students how to be good test takers.

However, let’s be REAL!  While we know that there is so much more that goes into teaching than the score that gets printed in our local and national newspapers, the reality is that is the basis for how some teachers receive their end-of-year evaluations.  It is how parents decide in which school zone they want to buy a house and raise their children and how the public places a critical eye on which schools they deem “good” schools with “good” teachers. It is not always flattering when you see these scores in black and white. If you are a teacher or administrator that is downright tired of being in that unflattering category of school performance scores, this article is for you!

In this article, I will not suggest any such mutinous words as, “teach the test,” but I will give proven strategies for helping our students feel more confident, create awareness of learning gaps and specific ways to master essential skills, and to take ownership of their learning and critical-thinking successes in the classroom, and yes, on that stinking test, too!

Create Attainable Goals

The first step in this process is to make sure your students are aware of last year’s scores and how to interpret them.  I recommend having students find their scores (or you print and distribute them) in your subject area or all subject areas tested and list them on a Test Score Goal Tracking Form.  This form can be hole-punched and added to the front of their binder or shrunk to 80% and glued in to their composition notebook to have quick and easy access to update progress, track skills mastered, and take ownership of their learning.  Next, teach students how to create obtainable goals and have them list their end-of-year goals for each subject tested.

Practice Text DEPENDENT Analysis Questions

Text dependent analysis (TDA) questions are critical thinking questions where students must first select a response to the question, then apply the correct evidence from the passage to support the answer, sometimes known as A/B or two-part questions.  This also refers to the text dependent prompt that requires students to read one or more fiction or nonfiction passages and then demonstrate reading comprehension and analysis of the author’s literary devices in the form of a well-written essay. Yes, a multi-layered booger of standards to tackle.  The simple solution: practice the heck out of this skill all year long, on self-made teacher quizzes, end of unit assessments, Friday Station Rotations, and CommonLit or ReadWorks as early finisher activity or common assessments for grade level or content area.

Practice Test Taking Strategies

We can tell our students to cross out the obvious bad multiple choice answers, read the questions before the passage, and to read all instructions carefully until we are blue in the face, but not until we present the message in a kid-friendly format such as a rap video like Flocabulary, Dr. Severson’s Test-Taking Tips, or this math test prep song by NumberRock do they finally get it.  Want more resources on ways teachers can be prepared, positive, and stress free on testing week? Check out Angela Watson’s article, Surviving Standardized Tests.

Master Standards [and Track Data]

Does the sound of the phrase data tracking make you want to toss your cute Pinterest-ready test-taking smart cookies?  I remember the days of creating our own spreadsheets, hand-grading paper-pencil exams, and entering data in weekly team meeting binders.  The thought of this makes my stomach tighten, my jaw clench, and is a literal pain in my neck. It does not have to be this way. There are a number of great websites out there that do a superb job of creating engaging leveled skill practice that track your individual students and class results for you. My personal favorite program for this is IXL. IXL offers skills practice in math, language arts, science and social studies, is leveled by grades (or you can set the screen so students do not know to which grade level the skill is attached), and a mini-onscreen celebration for each skill that is mastered (kids love this -- yes, even my 6th through 8th graders).  Plus, you can easily track progress and see who needs extra practice or re-teaching on a particular standard.

Create a Culture of Readers in Your Classroom

As the librarian at my last school, we used Accelerated Reader (AR) to help get every student reading.  However, we soon learned that while this method works for some students, it put too much pressure on some already good readers.  We soon discovered Donalyn Miller, a 6th grade English Language Arts teacher in Texas who wrote a book entitled, The Book Whisperer and another called, Reading in the Wild.  Miller’s approach is what any good teacher and librarian does anyway: attempts to connect students with the books and authors we think they might enjoy best.  I would highly recommend a school-wide book study (or a department-wide book study at the least) and use her simple techniques for encouraging reading in every classroom as early finisher work, standing-in-the-cafeteria-line-to-pass-time work, and before-school-I-don’t-want-to-talk-to-anyone-yet work.

Implement a Universal Writing Strategy Across Content Areas

As a National Writing Project Teacher Consultant, I am the first to argue that there is not “a writing process” or any one strategy that works above all others.  However, we sometimes must make a decision about which strategy will work best for our students and use it across grade levels or content areas. RACE is the writing strategy we put into practice across all content areas and throughout 6th, 7th, and 8th grades that worked the best.  Students could easily remember the strategy, transfer it from ELA to science, to social studies, and even math. RACE stands for

  • Restate the Prompt

  • Answer the Question

  • Cite Evidence, and

  • Explain Your Reasoning.

There are tons of great posters and activities on TeachersPayTeachers, or you can simply apply the strategy to any short answer writing prompt.

Practice Online Tools Training

Alaska and Louisiana, as well as many other states, use the Data Recognition Corporation (DRC) Insight portal for test taking and the online tools training.  This allows the students to see and practice with the tools that will be available during testing such as the pointer, cross-off, highlighter, sticky note, magnifier, and line guide, and help button.  If your students have only practiced with paper and pencil thus far, then this session will truly be beneficial for them.

Get a Good Night’s Sleep

Research consistently proves the connection between a good night’s sleep and better performance in school.  It is also documented in a study by the University of York that “sleep even helps boost language acquisition skills in young children”.  With this in mind, we need to make sure both our students and their parents understand the importance of a good night’s sleep each night before testing.  I would recommend sending a note home the week prior to testing to remind parents of testing dates and some suggested protocols for helping their child perform their best.

Eat a healthy Breakfast

Many parents know that breakfast is important, but may not know what types of breakfast foods are considered brain foods for kids.  Foods that boost brain functions such as memory, clear-thoughts, and provides the fuel needed for long hours of testing include salmon, lean meats, eggs, yogurt, berries, oatmeal, apples, and nut butters.  You should include this information in the note you send home to parents and guardians the week before testing.

PRACTICE MINDFULNESS, Meditation + Growth Mindset

I am truly excited about the movement towards teaching mindfulness, meditation and growth mindset in classrooms around the country.  The benefits of each of these activities are innumerous. According to Mindful Schools research, people who have practiced mindfulness training, “show improved attention”, “are more likely to help someone in need,” are better equipped to regulate emotions when faced with challenging or reactive situations, and it “reduces feelings of stress and improves anxiety,” all qualities and traits we hope to teach our students in coping with the challenges of school, homelife, and building relationships.


The test-taking strategies listed above are about raising student confidence and self-efficacy. They are about creating awareness of learning gaps and offering specific strategies or programs to master those skills. It is about moving students to taking ownerships of their learning and feeling great about it!

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