A Successful Assessment pt 3: how to take a test (or, reading instructions & not running out of time)

Test Prep help from the A+ ClubWhen a parent of a middle or high school teen worries that “my student doesn’t test” well, what’s missing is a combination of goal setting, preparation and execution.

As discussed in the previous posts on “Successful Assessments,” testing success consists of:

  • Identifying teacher/ test expectations (“no surprises”)
  • Preparing effectively (learning v. cramming)
  • Executing on test day (test taking strategies)

Test prep above all else

“Easy” tests are those students have or are effectively prepared for: if the student knows what to expect and prepares for it, the results will be strong.

That said, there are still a few things a student can do to better results on the test day.

A couple do-nots on test day include:

  • Staying up all night cramming
  • Arriving late
  • Arriving without required materials
  • Having forgotten all about it.

Getting past those barriers, which are managed in the prep phase, there are some things that students can do to improve during the test itself.

Practice the test situation in advance

This is more a test prep than day-of issue, but I add it here for emphasis: if your student has not practiced the testing situation in advance, your student is at a great disadvantage.

Preparation for the testing situation includes:

  • practicing for the test without music or distractions
  • practicing for the test for test length and type of seating
  • anticipating seating arrangements and routines in class on test day

Think like the test

Tests have a “context,” which means that they are associated with a particular set of skills or topics. When students approach the test within that context, they are more likely to employ the associations and learning that relates to the test.

I have seen all too many smart kids answer test questions thoughtfully but entirely out of context. Looking back on it, they realize, “doh, the test was about this not that,” which was the difference between a good and excellent test result.

Use the test to answer itself

Once the test has started, a student can still employ successful testing strategies for higher scores. These include:

Reading instructions

Kids are often impatient with instructions and hurt themselves by ignoring key information in test instruction. A parent can help their children by encouraging them to engage in process, which means, getting ready on time, writing name down first, reading titles and instructions, and otherwise being cognizant and patient with teacher instructions on test days.

Finding information in the test

It is impossible to write a comprehensive test that does not contain useful information in one question that can be used to answer another question.

Every question necessarily contains information, and students can pull that information to help answer other questions. Upon every test review, I always heard a couple “oh, no” moments when students realized that they had used information correctly on one part of a test that could have answered another.

Treat questions as information

Just as one question can help answer another, within individual questions there is always useful information.

Students benefit from slowing down and reading and re-reading questions to make sure they are clear on 1) what the question is really asking; and 2) what information does the question provide?

This technique, by the way, is a core strategy for improving scores on SAT and ACT tests. Simply by addressing questions more thoughtfully, we have seen students raise their SAT grades by 50 to 200 points.

Timing strategies

Usually, if the student has prepared, is familiar with the material, and is approaching the tests constructively, time is not an issue. Preparedness is 9/10ths of timing, although a few other scenarios do or can matter. Timing issues include:

  1. When a student has too much to say on a free-response or short-answer section.
  2. When a student focuses too much on a certain section or question.
  3. When a student is overly methodical or just slower than expected to process questions and answers.

Going too far on a free-response or essay question is really about understanding teacher or test expectations.  Students can monitor themselves during a test in order to see how long they are spending on each section or question. Students should be encouraged to ask teachers for guidance in timing.

Without extra time. students who are “slow,” i.e. deliberate, can adjust to test demands with strategic skipping: which may mean:

  • bust through the easy questions first
  • set limits on how long to spend on the hard questions so as not to be too caught up n them at the expense of other questions
  • use “strategic skipping” so as to skip lower-point questions in order to focus on higher-point questions (this may or may not include easy questions, depending on student preparation).)

If a student simply processes questions at a more deliberate rate (not slower!) than others, then we need to consider the options of testing accommodations. Good teachers will offer accommodations without the burdens of cognitive testing, but don’t be afraid to go that route if a school or a teacher is unwilling to offer your child reasonable accommodations for fair testing opportunities.

Test Preparation above all

With testing, it’s all the above:

  1. Were there any surprises?

  2. Were you prepared?

  3. Did you have time to finish?

So let’s dismiss the “my child doesn’t test well” excuse and instead work on strategies that build success instead of excusing failure.

Good luck and successful test prep & test day to you r child and you!

– Michael