Schoolwide Standardized Test Prep Strategies for Administrators

February 16, 2022Darri Stephens

Are you looking for some test prep strategies for your school? It’s not new news, but this pandemic has put a strain on school communities near and far. With so many unknowns, education at large — a field known for juggling the many variables of learning — has definitely felt the strain in daily procedures, academic outcomes, and morale. We are constantly hearing about teachers being #MarchTired already … and it’s only February.

  • According to a January and February 2021 survey of RAND’s American Teacher Panel, 1 in 4 teachers were considering leaving their positions by the end of the school year, compared to 1 in 6 on average prior to the pandemic. Health and mode of instruction were the highest-ranked stressors for these educators. 
  • The National Education Association surveyed 2,690 members in June 2021 and shared that 32% of respondents reported that the pandemic has made them plan to leave education earlier than anticipated.

Now couple this current conundrum with the traditional pressures that school communities feel come Spring around state testing. During the early 1800s, standardized testing became the norm (no pun intended) as teachers shifted from oral exams to written, and students were entering college, the military, or work force. Back then, Horace Mann theorized that standardized tests could help identify and replicate the best teaching methods. Yet after about a century of testing in schools, critics in the 1930s began to question how the efficiency of standardized tests were overshadowing the quality of instruction.

“Our mechanical, industrialized civilization is concerned with averages, with percents. The mental habit which reflects this social scene subordinates education and social arrangements based on averaged gross inferiorities and superiorities.” 

– John Dewey, 1922

Early tests such as the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Test, the Iowa Tests of Educational Development (ITED; now known as the Iowa Assessments), and the American College Testing (ACT) led up to a national legislation called the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) in 1965. ESEA was designed to fund primary and secondary education while emphasizing high standards and school accountability. Over the decades, it has been amended and reauthorized. With No Child Left Behind in 2001, standardized state testing had grown to be high stakes for reading and math. With testing in grades 3-8 and once in high school, educators deplored what now felt like they were just “teaching to the test.” Then in 2015, Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) passed, and there was an emphasis on lessening testing but still focusing on academic outcomes (read more about key provisions).

“The Every Student Succeeds Act takes steps to reduce standardized testing, and decouples testing and high-stakes decision making. Both are major improvements over No Child Left Behind’s one-size-fits-all approach to accountability, and the U.S. Department of Education’s criteria for granting waivers to the law.”

Regardless of what your opinion is of standardized testing, all stakeholders in a child’s education can feel the stress. In order to ease the anxiety — from student to parent to teacher alike — we have compiled a list of suggested test prep strategies to adopt in your school community in preparation of the April/May testing time frame: 

Reframe the conversation

Begin working test prep strategies into daily discussions to avoid people being overwhelmed at the onset. We need to model how to work on our own sense of resilience or hardiness. Testing is not for the faint of heart! To build teacher confidence, share these three C’s from Dr. Salvatore Maddi of the Hardness Institute:

  1. Challenge refers to seeing problems as challenges as opposed to overwhelming threats.
  2. Control describes handling tough situations by feeling powerful and taking action.
  3. Commitment means staying motivated and committed even through difficult times, pushing through obstacles with intention.


Knowledge is Power

Do make sure that all of your stakeholders understand the design of these tests, the schedule for testing, and how to interpret the results. Have candid conversations about the current learning gaps and what are the expectations for student performance:

  • Norm-referenced testing (NRT) compares a tester’s knowledge and skills to the norm group, a.k.a, their peers, by referencing the scores. When it comes to student standardized tests, these norm groups are usually a nationally representative sample of thousands of kids in that same grade; sometimes the groups are narrowed down by socioeconomic status, ELL status, or race/ethnicity. 
  • Criterion-referenced testing (CRT) measures a student’s knowledge or skills against a predetermined score, goal, standard, or other criterion. They are not measured against one another, nor does their performance affect another’s results. Most commonly, students’ scores are categorized as “basic,” “proficient,” or “advanced.”
  • Both types of testing, NRT and CRT, can be standardized. ​​Standardization means that there are uniform procedures for both administration and scoring to assure that results are comparable between different test takers.

Fortify Learning Environments

Most teachers know that they need to cover or remove instructional aides that adorn classroom walls during the designated testing period for test prep strategies. Instead, work with your educators to have students create meaningful messages that will motivate them and give them that extra boost of encouragement. Help classrooms find exemplary quotes from role models. Classrooms can display these new posters or construction paper chains with each student’s personal messages. 

Create rotations stations

Brainstorm about ways your grades can collaborate during instructional time to refresh concepts with students and provide a bit of extra practice. Classrooms could dedicate time to rotation stations that leverage small group work, peer-to-peer instruction, and parent volunteers.  With test prep strategies, you may want to consider collaboration with after-school programs too for their support.

Sync with the Home

These days we can feel like we’re over-communicating at times, but testing is one of those periods when you should reach out and recommend how families can support a child to perform their best. Discover Nearpod’s Take Home Folder of tips and strategies. Encourage your teachers to share the My Sleep Log, where the kids can mark their bedtimes and when they wake to better assess how many hours of sleep they are getting (remember, awareness is half the battle!). Ask them to send home the Sensible Snack Tracker, plus recipes or suggestions for nutritious meals, designed to give kids the energy and stamina to power through a long day of testing. Remind your school community’s families to limit screen time and to maximize outdoor time so that kids are refreshed and alert to face hours of testing.

Model de-stressing techniques

As always, teachers are great role models to show how best to recenter one’s emotions in the moment. As a test prep strategy, model and practice some of the following techniques in staff meetings so that teachers can do so in their classrooms:

  1. Elephant breathing — While this technique is quite elementary … it is quite effective! Stand with feet apart and dangle your arms in front of you just like an elephant’s trunk, Breathe in deeply through your nose as you raise your arms high above your head. Breathe out through your mouth as you swing your arms back down. Repeat!
  2. The Thinker — Cross your wrists to grasp your hands, then twist your clasped hands under so that you can pin between your chin and chest, hugging your elbows tight (see video!)
  3. Pressure points — Simply press both thumbs to your middle fingers at the same time or use your dominant hand to grasp your other and press your thumb into the center of your palm.

Prioritize Self-Care

We know this message has been echoed over the last couple of years, but we need to equip both our student and teacher bodies with a myriad of strategies so that each individual can find what works best for them. Build teacher confidence and develop student well-being by encouraging moments of mindfulness, practice breathing techniques, and identify favorite “ME TIME” activities. And don’t forget to normalize the conversation around mental health and mental well-being.

“The mental health and well-being of teachers can have a really important impact on the mental health and well-being of the children who they’re spending most of their days with,” Green explains. “Having teachers feel safe and supported in their school environments is essential to students learning and being successful.”

There is no doubt that testing is a stressful time for students and teachers, but there are actionable strategies administrators can take to ease the anxiety. The challenge is having a plan in advance that supports student and teacher understanding and mental health well ahead of all the details that go into administering the actual tests! We hope these test prep strategies support your efforts.

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