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The 5 Biggest Lessons to Learn About State Testing

The 5 Biggest Lessons to Learn About State Testing

It is March, so that means state testing is right around the corner. I hate state testing, and I am guessing you do too. I could write for hours about all of the reasons I think our current system of testing is fatally flawed, but that isn't what this blog post is about.

As teachers, we have to administer the state tests, and we have to prepare our students to take the tests. Often preparing kids for state testing involves hours of practice tests, practice reading passages, and other instruction tailored directly for the test. Well, the biggest lesson I have learned about state testing is that all of that test prep is a waste of time.

So, you are probably wondering, you don't get your kids ready for the test at all?

Nope. I do get my students ready. But, instead of preparing them to take a specific test, I prepare them to think.

The great thing about teaching kids to think instead of take a test is that thinking can be used in a variety of situations whereas taking a test pretty much only happens in school.

So, how do we teach kids to think? Well, here are my five biggest lessons that have learned about teaching kids to think to prepare them for state testing (and life).

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Read. Kids need to read. A lot. By reading, kids are learning how words fit together to form sentences. Then, they are learning how sentences fit together to form ideas. In all of the reading passages on a state test, kids need to show that they understand what they are reading. Comprehension can be taught explicitly through worksheets and lectures, but nothing is as powerful as discovery. 

There has been a push with the Common Core to have students read more nonfiction material. The suggested balance is 50% fiction and 50% nonfiction. While this may be a good goal, I believe it is much more important to have students read material that they choose to read. Becoming a strong reader is all about the time spent reading. Not the time spent staring at a book, but the time spent actually reading. Give kids books they will read, and all of their reading skills will improve.

To assess comprehension, you don't need worksheets. Ask kids what they are reading about. They will be so excited to share with you. If a child doesn't understand what she is reading, find reading material that she can master and have her work up from there. Sometimes wanting to read a difficult book is the most powerful motivation for a struggling reader.

In addition to understanding how sentences form ideas, reading also increases student vocabularies. We all use context clues to learn new words when we are reading something we want to read. Kids will learn new words as they read, and you can support them by looking at what they are reading as a source of vocabulary words. You can even have kids suggest class vocabulary words based on their own reading. 

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Most Americans do not feel comfortable "doing math." What they really mean is that they haven't memorized all of the formulas and steps to solve math problems. The problem isn't the majority of Americans; it is the way we have been teaching math. Math isn't something you should memorize; it is problem-solving. If you have ever seen a toddler move furniture to climb to reach a tray of cookies, you know that kids are natural problem solvers. Then we put them in a classroom and teach them steps to solve math problems, so they don't have to problem solve anymore.

I believe that the way to make kids problem solvers again is to let them solve problems. Don't tell them, "This is how you solve for area," and then have them repeat the steps ten times. Instead, explain that area is how much space is inside a shape (or room, or house, or yard). Then, ask them to find the area of a given shape. To start, the shape could be on grid paper, so students could (but don't have to) count boxes. Then, when they are ready, move on to shapes with only the sides labeled. This practice will not only give kids a much better sense of how to solve for area, but it will show kids that they can use what they already know to solve new problems. I have seen so many kids meltdown during a test because they don't remember how to solve a math problem. If kids are used to not knowing exactly how to solve a problem, they will be so much more comfortable coming up with their own strategies when they need them.

When I said math wasn't about memorization, I wasn't 100% honest. To be successful in math, kids need to memorize their math facts. Sure, they can use strategies to figure out addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division problems, but these calculations take up a lot of space in working memory. Our working memory space is limited, so if it is used for calculations, there won't be space for problem-solving. The kids will literally run out of room.

There are tons of tools to help kids memorize their math facts. Some will work for some kids, and some will work for others. Find what works for each of your students and give them the space to practice. Memorizing math facts is the most important part of math because math facts unlock everything else.

During state testing, you will find some of your students have severe test anxiety. I have written a lot about my own daughter who suffers from general anxiety. She completely freezes during tests. We have been able to overcome it by preparing for tests, but in a state test so much in unknown that it can feel overwhelming for any student. It is also important to remember that anxiety isn't binary. Instead, anxiety exists on a spectrum that can change depending on the subject, the day, etc...

Luckily, we can teach our students how to respond to anxiety. The video below is an amazing TedTalk that you can watch all about stress. I will also summarize it here. What we interpret as stress (or mild anxiety) is actually our bodies getting ready to face a challenge. Our hearts beat faster because it is getting more oxygen to the different parts of our body so that it can work better. Our stomach feels queasy because our body is shifting energy away from digestion and to our brain and our muscles. Knowing this information is empowering. When we feel our body responding to being nervous, we can interpret it as our bodies getting ready for a challenge. Changing our interpretation of our physiology changes our self-talk from, "I'm so scared," to "I'm ready."

Teaching kids do deal with anxiety around testing will help them do better on the test. When we are nervous, our caveman brains start overriding our thinking skills. Specifically, the amygdala, which is responsible for our fight or flight reaction, is so powerful that it will take up all of the brain's space for working memory. This leaves kids with no room for problem-solving. They won't be able to remember or understand because they don't have any space.

We can teach kids to turn off the amygdala by teaching them about why the body changes when they feel nervous. We can also give them tools such as breathing exercises, positive self-talk, and movement. It is important to teach these tools outside of a stressful situation when students are calm. If a student is already nervous, they won't have the space to take in new information.

Finally, the last lesson about state testing is the one that you can't control. It is also the most important part of having a student that is ready for a state test or life in general. Students need enough sleep and enough healthy food to eat. In a perfect world, every child would live in a safe, reliable home where they had access to healthy food and were getting enough sleep every night. We know this isn't the case. 

One thing you can do is talk to your kids about healthy food choices and how important sleep is for the brain. If you are able, you can also have snacks ready if you notice that a student might be hungry. This is the hardest lesson because there is so little we, as teachers, can do to help our students in this area.

I really ended on a high note there, didn't I? 

Our jobs, as teachers, can be summarized as to teach kids how to think and communicate. If we work toward this goal, our students will be prepared for a state test. Especially if we let them in on the sixth lesson:

The test doesn't really matter anyway.

How do you prepare for state testing? Share your tips in the comments!

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