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Six Strategies to Prepare Your Students for High-Stakes Testing

Updated on
Modified on June 22, 2023

With increased accountability for schools to demonstrate student achievement comes high-stakes testing. Although testing can be stressful for students and teachers, there are measures we can use to lessen that stress and help students do a better job showing what they know.

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1. Use Data
Throughout the year, use data to drive instruction and meet the needs of individual students and the class. What strengths did students have? What were their weaknesses? What areas do you need to spend more time on? Do you need to break students into smaller learning groups to focus on these areas? Ask yourself these questions throughout the year as you continue to monitor students’ growth on key skills and purposefully and thoughtfully plan scaffolding into lessons.

2. Teach and Provide Practice with Multiple-Choice Strategies
Sometimes, we assume students know the tricks and tips to answering multiple-choice questions, but that is not always the case. During lessons, it is easy to model the thinking processes and strategies for students and lead them through guided practice on items already in your lessons and assignments. What are the key words in the question? Can some choices be eliminated? Students also need to know it is OK to skip a difficult question and return to it, especially if a test is timed. Teach them to mark skipped questions so they can easily find them to answer later.

3. Include Explicit Instruction on Depth of Knowledge (DOK) Words
We all understand building students’ vocabularies is critical to success in school, but academic assignments and assessments have their terminology. Students may have difficulty understanding what a question is asking them to do or what kind of answer a question needs. Building instruction of DOK words into everyday lessons can be quick and easy since students are constantly being assigned questions to answer across content areas. Underlining the key words in questions and discussing what information the answer needs, shows students the process and builds comprehension skills. Help students know where to find the information in the text, if necessary.

4. Teach Previewing and Reading for a Purpose
Most assessments today have a reading comprehension section or questions that involve reading information or word problems. It is helpful for students to preview the text looking for text features, like title, headings, pictures and captions, graphs or charts, bold or italicized words. Thinking about the clues these text features give is an important step in comprehending text. One might believe these strategies only apply to ELA assessments, but math, social studies, and science tests often include lengthy word problems, passages, or documents for students to read. Knowing why they are reading the text, the structure of the text, and what information will be important, will help students be more successful in analyzing it.

5. Use Strategies for Planning and Drafting Constructed Responses and Essays
Have you watched students brainstorm wonderful ideas and then not be able to put those same ideas into a rough draft? One critical step in the writing process is the planning stage, which comes after prewriting (brainstorming, listing, etc.) and before drafting. There are quick, easy-to-use outlines and graphic organizers students can utilize in class and on their assessments to plan and organize their thoughts before answering. Most high-stakes assessments even provide a space for students to prewrite and plan for open-ended questions and essays. Even better, planning tools can be taught and used across content areas and grade levels. Step Up to Writing® has several proven, effective strategies for this purpose.

6. Create Positivity
Whether students have emotional or behavioral difficulties or test anxiety, high-stakes assessments can be frustrating. Creating a climate of “Can Do” and teaching ways for students to deal with the stress of testing will help lessen frustration. Teach students to take small, slow breathing or stretch breaks during tests in ways that will not distract others. Remind students how to deal with difficult questions—look for clues, break apart the question, take your best shot, return to it later—so they will not immediately give up. As educators, we are good at reminding parents to ensure their children are fed and well rested on test days, but we need to include parents in more aspects of high-stakes testing. Start by communicating test-taking strategies to parents and caregivers and incorporating those into homework. Have students practice relaxation techniques at home. Celebrate completing testing and meeting goals in school and include parents and caregivers.

Today, high-stakes assessments are an integral part of our students’ educational experiences. By utilizing these strategies, we can create a more positive testing environment and set up our students for increased success.

Improve state writing scores with writing practice that focuses on the skills found on most state tests. Step Up to Writing® Fourth Edition is an unparalleled writing instruction program designed for learners of all levels and types in grades K–12.

About the Author
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Therese Pickett
Implementation Specialist, Voyager Sopris Learning

Therese Pickett has served as an implementation specialist for Voyager Sopris Learning for the past 15 years. During this time, she has enjoyed training, supporting, and collaborating with districts across the country to help students achieve their full academic potential. Before joining Voyager Sopris Learning, Pickett taught junior and senior high school ELA and history in general education and special education classrooms. She lives in the Blue Water area of southeast Michigan with her husband and two children.

Learn more about Therese Pickett