Test Prep: Doesn’t Have to Be a Big Deal

test prep

Let me start by stating for the record that I HATE STANDARDIZED TESTS!

Growing up I didn’t mind them at all.  I didn’t find them stressful and I always did extremely well on them.  I didn’t start hating standardized tests until I did my Junior Field Experience at a “struggling” middle school that had to bring up their test scores.  There was a huge emphasis placed on preparing for the tests at that school by taking practice tests and having students begin each class by working on pages from their big test prep packets.  I HATED those test prep packets and swore that I would never “teach to the test” when I became a teacher.

Two years later, when I had my own classroom, I did absolutely nothing to prepare my students for the standardized tests they had to take.  I was convinced that my daily lessons would be enough to prepare the students for the test and that they would do fantastic on the test even without any kind of test prep.  My students did okay on their standardized tests that year.  For the most part, their scores were pretty consistent with their scores from the previous years – some went up slightly and others went down slightly.  They definitely weren’t bad, but they weren’t wonderful, either, which disappointed me.

My second year teaching, my school got a new principal who was obsessed with standardized tests.  We had to give our students practice tests, complete test prep books, and complete online test prep programs.  There had to be some form of test prep in my lesson plans each and every day.  My students did extremely well on the standardized tests that year, but I found the year extremely stressful for me as a teacher and for my students, as well.

My third year teaching, my school got yet another new principal, who did away with the practice tests, online test prep, and book test prep.  I was relieved, but at the same time I didn’t want my students’ scores to go down.  I realized that there needed to be a balance between doing nothing to prepare for tests and focusing solely on the tests.  What I decided to do was spend a little bit of time each week simply reviewing old skills.

I begin every class period with a “do now”.  My “do nows” are typically two questions based on the previous day’s lesson.  What I decided to do my 3rd year in the classroom, was change my Monday “do nows” to review questions.  I call my Monday “do nows” “no calculator reviews” (or NCRs).  I put up 6 questions that review old skills on my interactive whiteboard for the students to complete (obviously) without a calculator.  I let them look back in their notebooks to refresh their memory on how to do the problems and sometimes let them work with a partner.  The idea is just to get the students to remember how to do skills that they learned earlier in the year.  I typically give them about 10 minutes to do the problems and then we review them.  I then move on to the day’s lesson.  Below is an example of one of my 6th grade NCRs.

no calculator review

My students did as well on their standardized tests the year that I started doing NCRs as they did the year that was focused solely on test prep, so I know that they are working.  I am not stressed and my students are not stressed.  In fact, they don’t even realize that their weekly NCRs relate to the standardized tests that they will be taking.  It’s easy, quick, and effective…I love it!

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Understanding Grades

What’s my average?

I can’t even tell you how many times I get asked that question by my students.  In one sense, it’s great that the students care about their grades.  On the other hand, this question drives me crazy…and it’s my own fault.

My first 2 years teaching, I had each of my students keep personal grade sheets.  My students knew that every time they got an assignment back they had to record it on their grade sheet and recalculate their average.  It took a couple of weeks of me helping the students, but after the first few weeks of school, it became second nature for my students and they all knew their averages in my class all of the time.  I did not ever have students asking me what their grade was…and it was great!  The most wonderful thing about this system, I found, however, was that the kids really understood their grades in my class.  They “got it” that a daily warmup worth 2 points would barely affect their grade, but that a test would heavily influence their grade.  They understood exactly how they got the grade that they did on their report cards.  My absolute favorite was when some of my better students would actually calculate exactly what grade they needed to get on their next test or quiz to maintain a certain average.  To me that showed true understanding of the point system and averages.

gradesheet example

Soo…you might be wondering why I stopped having my students keep grade sheets….

My 3rd year teaching, my school adopted a new online grade book where the students and parents were able to see their grades on all assignments, as well as their average in the class, at any given time.  I figured that since the online gradebook showed everything I had the students record on their grade sheets, there was no purpose in having them continue to keep track of their grades on their own.

I realize now (in my 6th year of teaching), that it was a mistake on my part to drop the gradesheets.  Yes, my students can login and see their grades online but (a) many don’t check, and (b) the ones who do check don’t have the same understanding of their grades that my former students did.  Not since my 2nd year teaching have I had a student understand their grade well enough to tell me that they need to get a 92 on their next test to end up with an “A” average, and I miss those conversations.

My school year is broken up into trimesters and the 2nd trimester is ending next week.  I will be bringing back the grade sheets 3rd trimester and can’t wait to (hopefully) see an improvement of understanding of grades in my students!

student grade sheet

Click the image above to download this free student grade sheet!

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