Teaching Test Prep

Teaching test prep? Getting students ready for standardized testing? Read these tips from an instructor.
Teaching test prep? You might be!
I asked my friend and online colleague Sara (from Secondary Sara) some serious questions about the how and the why of teaching test prep. She was gracious enough to answer my questions for my readers. Read below for her responses.
The ACT and SAT seem to change, and it is hard to stay current. What should teachers know about each test?
First, teachers should know that both tests underwent BIG changes in the ballpark of 2016, so if you were trained on the tests before then, it’s time to refresh. (Here’s a really nice comparison outlining what both tests look like now.)

The biggest thing English teachers should know is that the ESSAY section of both the SAT and ACT has completely changed. Students have to read and respond to actual passages and perspectives, instead of just writing an opinion essay from a very basic prompt. Here’s an example of an updated ACT Writing mini-unit that you can use to teach in a high school classroom.

If keeping up with the tests is daunting, my favorite strategy is to spend ONE summer afternoon in the bookstore, perusing through the different brand names’ practice books that have been updated for the next school year. It’s a no-stress way to see if anything has changed, see what strategies are being preached by other companies, and find passages that I can give to students.

What actions can English teachers implement tomorrow to help their students do well on a standardized test?

My single biggest advice is to start giving short, TIMED reading passages. The single biggest complaint that I get from my tutoring students is that they “can’t read fast enough” and “can’t finish the Reading section in time.” Usually, they’re struggling because tests ask for the opposite of what we usually teach in ELA. In a classroom, we preach for deep, active, slow reading (and rereading), often with intense annotating. The tests ask students to quickly read, sift out what’s important from what isn’t, annotate more impulsively, and get through questions quickly.

Even if you don’t like to “teach to the test”, include passage-based quizzes or timed reading in the assessments you include for your current unit, and your students will benefit from the practice.

When should teachers begin reviewing with students? How?

Start at least 1 month before the test, and review a little every day instead of cramming (the same advice you’d tell a student). If you have legal access to practice questions, administer a practice test EARLY so that you can determine what review needs to happen. Then, add as many mini-lessons, bell-ringers, or quick reviews as you have time for. This is the time to practice what we teach about practicing consistently instead of cramming, so doing a little review every day helps students maintain that knowledge.

Here’s an example: if students have suddenly forgotten every punctuation rule they’ve ever been taught, then it’s time to not only review those rules, but probably also review the prerequisite ones that are ACTUALLY causing students to mess up punctuation. (If they’re failing to identify and fix a run-on sentence, then they probably don’t have complete sentences, independent vs. dependent clauses, and/or sentence types mastered anymore.)

If you don’t have a lot of time left until test day (or don’t want to put your curriculum on hold to “teach to the test”), try to weave the needed skill into whatever you’re currently doing. For example, if you’re worried about students finishing a writing prompt in time, make your next essay a timed write instead of one that’s done in workshop or at home.

Teaching test prep? Getting students ready for standardized testing? Read these tips from an instructor.

Thanks so much, Secondary Sara! Teaching test prep can be overwhelming, and I appreciate the sensible ideas.

Secondary Sara is a teacher and tutor in Columbus, Ohio. She has a Master’s of Education in English Language Arts for grades 7-12 from The Ohio State University. Sara first worked for a test prep company before teaching high school, and she currently teaches 7th and 8th grade. She blogs with her golden retriever and her hubby by her side at secondarysara.com

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If your school mandates that you teach test prep, some differentiation ideas might be helpful.