Your child is used to taking tests, but beginning in middle school the results carry higher stakes. Tests may determine whether your child progresses from algebra to geometry, graduates from high school or is admitted to the college of her choice. It’s no wonder parents worry that their kids are test-stressed.

You can help your child learn to take tests and use tests to learn with these 10 tips:

1. Monitor Your Child’s Progress on Homework and Classroom Tests.

It may seem obvious, but good study skills are the best test preparation. It can be challenging to keep track of your tween or teen’s progress in school. Your child is learning to be independent – a good thing – and may resist your efforts. And you don’t want to get so involved that you’re the one doing his homework. How much supervision you need to provide depends on your child’s age, maturity and how he’s doing in school. Find out the best times and ways to contact his teachers (Email makes this a lot easier!) Check in with them regularly for feedback and ask how you can help your child at home.

2. Help Your Child Learn From Tests.

Go over tests with your child to see if there are concepts he still doesn’t understand and give him a pat on the back if he did well. Ask your child if he knows how he was able to achieve the grade he got or how he can get a better grade next time. If he gets an 80% on an essay test and the teacher’s only comment is “good job,” that’s not much information. What was good? What does he have to do to get 100%? Many teachers use “rubrics,” or scoring guides, to show students the difference between A, B and C work. Rubrics can break down a more subjective area, such as writing, into components that students can more readily understand.

3. Talk to the Teachers or Principal About How Test Results Are Used.

Ask how the teacher uses test results to adjust her lesson planning or methods of instruction. Does the teacher go over tests after handing them back so that students get a chance to learn from them? Ask the principal how the school uses standardized tests to improve learning and instruction, and how achievement gaps between groups of students are being addressed.

4. Find Out How Students Are Prepared for Standardized Tests.

Do they understand the purpose of a test? Is preparation a separate activity, done in the last week or two, using old editions of the test? This focus on the superficial features of test-taking is what gives test preparation a bad name.

Students should be given some classroom tests in the same format as the standardized test they will take. “We’re not talking about getting old copies of the test,” says Dr. Christopher Tienken, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction in New Jersey and a professor at the Rutgers University Graduate School of Education. “If a test format calls for a written response, you shouldn’t be seeing only multiple-choice tests.”

Good teachers integrate the test-taking skills and strategies into their instruction on a regular basis. For example, the skills needed to successfully answer questions on a reading comprehension test – time management, understanding the question being asked and distilling the main point of the passage to be read – are those your child will need to complete assignments in many classes in the years ahead.

5. Find Out What Other Ways the School Assesses Students.

Tests don’t give a full picture of your student. They don’t measure her ability as an artist or creative thinker. For this reason, some schools also use portfolio assessment to evaluate students. Students collect samples of their story drafts, research projects or lab reports into portfolios. The student’s reflections and evaluations of what she has learned are part of the portfolio, which she presents to classmates, teachers and in some cases, parents or community members. Portfolio assessment is not widely used because portfolios are more time-consuming to grade than standardized tests. A number of colleges also accept academic portfolios for admission. Whether or not your child’s school uses a variation of portfolio assessment, she should be assessed on more than test results. Your child should be given a range of assignments, from research papers to creative writing to science projects to help her become an engaged learner and to practice skills that tests may not reflect.

  • Learn more: Here’s a description of portfolio assessment from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Educational Research and Improvement.

    Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon, is one college that allows students to skip the SAT and submit a portfolio. Applicants have to send in four samples of graded work from their junior and senior years in high school, including teacher comments.


6. Help Your Child Learn the Questions to Ask Before the Test.

The path to a good grade shouldn’t be a mystery. At the beginning of the school year or semester, the teacher should make clear how students will be graded.

Some teachers give points for homework, quizzes and projects and add them up to calculate a grade. Others count only major assignments. Some reward effort, which makes hard-working students feel better but should also be a warning flag: Grades from teachers who give lots of credit for effort don’t give an accurate picture of the skills students have mastered.

Before a test, your student should know the specifics: the test format, the scope of material covered, whether he needs to show his work for math problems and whether he’ll be penalized for guessing on a multiple-choice test. If a teacher isn’t providing enough information to help your child prepare, make an appointment to speak with the teacher, and if you need to, talk to the principal.

7. Before the Test, Go Over Strategies With Your Student.

Remind him to do the following:

  • Preview the test before he starts work on it, noting the number of points for each question. Then, he should quickly figure out how much time to spend on each section.
  • Read the question carefully so he understands what he is being asked to do. On a multiple-choice test, a question that asks “Which of the following does not…..” has a far different answer than “Which of the following does….” Talk about how the answers would be different if your child is asked to:
  • Compare (identify similarities and differences)
  • Contrast (show differences)
  • Summarize (give a concise account without detail)
  • Prove (support a point of view with facts)
  • Answer the easiest questions first. Then go back to the tougher ones.
  • Make educated guesses on multiple-choice questions. If points are deducted for guessing, it’s better to leave an answer blank than to make a wild guess. But if your child can eliminate one or more incorrect answers, or if there is no penalty for guessing, it’s a good idea to guess.
  • On questions that require matching, he should read all the items before he writes any answers so he can get an idea of all the possibilities. This is less time-consuming than going back to erase and change an answer.
  • For short-answer questions, keep in mind that the teacher has something specific in mind from the assigned reading or her lectures.
  • Know that first impulses are usually correct, so be careful about going back to change answers.
  • Use all of his time. If he finishes, he should check his answers. If he’s checked the answers once, he can cover up his answers and think through the question again to see if he should rework his answer.

8. Remember That All Tests Are Tests of Reading Ability.

If your student struggles with tests, talk to the teacher about whether she may have a reading problem. She may be able to read individual words but struggle with the advanced reading skills middle and high school students need to summarize, analyze and predict. Keep books, magazines and newspapers at home to encourage your child to read, and let her see you reading, too. Older children still look to parents as role models, even if they aren’t quick to admit it!

9. Help Your Child Get Physically and Mentally Prepared.

Try to make sure your child has a well-balanced diet and is well-rested. Make sure he knows how the results of a test will be used and encourage him to take it seriously. Talk to him about any fears he has about a test if he seems overly anxious. But then remind him that the test is only one measure of what he can do.

  • Learn more: Check the GreatSchools.org Healthy Kids guide for healthy food and fitness ideas.

10. Learn More About Tests.

Find out what a test is designed to measure. Don’t draw conclusions from a single test score and question any decision the school makes about your child based on a single test. How your child feels physically on test day or the way she feels about the teacher can affect her results.

Tienken says that his district has moved away from using a single test to determine a child’s placement in a program for gifted students or in a particular class. A student’s past achievement, current report card and test scores are now taken into account before a decision is made, he says.

“Parents should ask, ‘What are your criteria for student placement decisions?'” Tienken advises.

If your child’s results on several different tests are relatively consistent, you should pay attention and discuss any worrying trends – as well as newly emerging talents – with the teacher or counselor.

When looking at your school’s test scores, assessing whether the school’s scores have improved or declined over time is more useful than looking at the results of a single test.

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