How (And Why) To Prepare Students For High-Stakes Testing

High-Stakes Testing

I think we can all agree that:

  1. High-Stakes Tests will most likely be here to stay for awhile. This is not a dragon that we can slay in just a day.
  2. High-Stakes Tests such as the OCCT, the high school EOIs, and even the ACT all test one thing: The student’s ability to take a multiple choice test.
  3. Even students who are very successful at these tests admit that having a strategy and understanding what the test creator wants are key to performing well on the tests.

So let me ask you this: Knowing these things, doesn’t it make sense that we should prepare students to take these tests?

I know, I know. Like you, I’d rather be teaching writing, grammar, reading comprehension, or vocabulary. (Some of you would rather teach math, and I’ll be happy to let you!)

However, unless your school offers every student a study skills/test prep class, we should all work test taking strategies into our course work — spaced out over the first semester, and with a final review/push right before the tests.

As I was thinking about this article, I was reminded of my days preparing for the ACT. I took the test the first time in my junior year and set what I’ll refer to as a baseline score. Another friend of mine scored the same, and another one scored a few points lower; we all wanted to improve our scores.

So, (and I’m dating myself here) we went to the library and checked out the ACT manual that included practice tests. We worked through the lessons, took the practice tests, scored each others’ efforts and discussed why we missed certain questions. We also took a test prep workshop at our high school.

The second time I took the test, I improved my score by three points.

That might not seem like much, but on an OCCT, that could be the difference between limited knowledge and proficient.

Here are my takeaways from that experience:

  • Taking the test multiple times made it less scary.
  • Taking the test multiple times enabled me to develope an understanding of what the test creators wanted.
  • Learning and practicing strategies helped me perform better. Strategies included: Rreading the passages carefully, reading the questions carefully (and looking for key words like “not”), eliminating the wrong answers, referring back to the text, and confirming the correct answer via the text before filling in the bubble. I also learned to go back and check the test once I finished.

These are strategies that worked well in my favor (obviously!) when I took my OGET, OSATs, and OPTE.

Should’t we teach our students these strategies — not to the exclusion of all else, but in conjunction with our project-based activities, and our group discussions (Hey, this process could be a group discussion, particularly if you have your class setup with multi-level ability groups!)

Some critics of test preparation might say that prepping for a test is cheating. However, I view preparing for middle school OCCTs or high school EOIs the same way a lawyer might view preparing for the Bar Exam, or a doctor might view preparing for board exams.

Of course, our children ARE NOT small adults who just need to be set free to study for months to take high stakes tests. We must provide them with the guidance, motivation, and encouragement they are not yet mature enough to provide themselves.

Preparing my students

Two years ago, I taught a Focus Reading class at an urban, high poverty middle school in the Oklahoma City metro area. The students in this class had all scored unsatisfactory on the reading OCCT, and they HATED reading. I mean, they were vehemently, and vocally against the idea of reading.

However, I discovered that if I gave them a computer, the opportunity to choose an leveled article, read, take a 10-question test, instantly receive a score, and an external reward for scoring well, the kids would read. Most of them were engaged in the reading, so I was able to sit with those students who struggled, discover why they were having problems, and provide them with strategies to help them improve their scores.

In my focus class, the students would read these articles twice a week. The program I used is called Achieve3000.

We’d also read the reader’s theater play in Scope magazine one day a week (students would chose the roles they wanted to read), and complete SRA activities one day, and on Friday we would play games that required critical thinking.

In my regular classes, which were combined English and Reading, we read Achieve3000 articles once per week, and spent the rest of the week working with more traditional or project-based activities.

Achieve3000 provides each student a LevelSet test at the beginning of the year, then “levels up” students as they show growth in their comprehension and vocabulary capabilities. As a teacher, I receive reports showing how each student in performing within the system, including each students’ reading level, and grades for their tests. However, my school wanted a third-party assessment instrument, so we chose STAR Reading by Renaissance Learning.

Measuring my students’ progress

We gave our students the STAR reading test about once per month. By the end of the year, all my classes showed steady growth towards (and in at least one class, way above) the goal, which would equate to a proficient or higher score on the OCCT.

Student Scores Honors
A sample of student STAR Reading scores from an 8th grade honors class.

At the end of last year, I did a comparison between the STAR scores and the preliminary OCCT scores. My comparison shows that there is a strong correlation between on-target STAR scores, and proficient/advanced OCCT scores.

[tweet_dis]As long as we have high-stakes tests, we must effectively prepare our students to take them, just like doctors, lawyers, teachers, and other professionals prepare themselves to take high-stakes tests.[/tweet_dis] Using the tools and strategies above have proven to be effective methods of improving student performance on these tests.

About the author 

Michelle Boyd Waters, M.Ed.

I am a secondary English Language Arts teacher, a University of Oklahoma student working on my doctorate in Instructional Leadership and Academic Curriculum with an concentration in English Education and co-Editor of the Oklahoma English Journal. I am constantly seeking ways to amplify students' voices and choices.

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