What Your Child Should Be Learning: State Tests

Teaching the standards, testing strategies and time management will help your child be prepared for state tests.

By Miriam Myers , GreatSchools Staff

State Tests and the Standards

You've probably been hearing a lot about standardized tests - from the media, your child's school and even from your child. Preparing for these tests and paying attention to the results are increasingly becoming important parts of public education today.

As a result of the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law, there's a nationwide emphasis on testing and accountability.

Who Decides What Tests My Child Will Take?

Although NCLB is a federal law, each state Department of Education decides which tests will be given in that state. Schools in all 50 states must give tests annually in reading and math in grades 3 through 8 and at least once in grades 10 through 12. Students are now tested in science at least once during grades 3 through 5. Many states give additional tests in social studies, writing and other subjects in various grades.

The NCLB law also requires schools to show that students are "making adequate yearly progress" or face consequences, including allowing students to transfer to another school, offering free tutoring, losing federal funds or in the worst cases, being taken over by the state.

How Do I Find Out What's on the Tests?

Some states produce documents called directories of test specifications. These documents provide teachers and parents with in-depth information about the tests. For example, New Jersey's Language Arts Directory of Test Specifications explains how many words are in a typical passage on the test. This information helps teachers match their classroom activities and tests to state curriculum standards. Parents should be aware of these documents so they know what type of work they should expect to see in the classroom. Find your state standards.

To see what state tests your child is taking, check your school's profile on GreatSchools.org. For sample test questions, check your state Department of Education online.

What's the Best Way to Prepare for the Test?

How is your child preparing in the classroom to take all these tests? Is she spending many hours filling out bubbles on practice tests and memorizing vocabulary words? Time spent on endless class drills means there's less time for your student to practice higher level thinking skills and learn subjects that aren't on state tests, such as art, music or a second language.

At the other extreme, are the tests not mentioned until the day they are given? Teachers who don't help prepare students for tests are missing the chance to teach valuable life skills such as time management and the ability to understand the meaning of words from context, pull out facts and draw connections from reading passages.

The best test preparation, experts agree, is for the teacher to provide rich, engaging lessons based on the state grade-level standards, which are in turn the basis for the state tests.

"The best way to prepare students for standardized tests is to be addressing the standards continuously in teaching," says Karen Heath, a literary specialist and Vermont's Teacher of the Year in 2005. "Our state tests are designed to measure progress on and attainment of state standards, and so if we are truly teaching to the standards, which we should be, students are in ongoing preparation for the tests."

How Are Tests Connected to Standards?

Each state creates standards by grade level or grade band (i.e. k-2, 3-5) and specific skills students should know at each grade level. The tests, in turn, are supposed to be aligned with the standards. For example in California, in third-grade math, students should understand the special properties of 0 and 1 in multiplication and division. If a teacher is teaching this standards-based curriculum, he is preparing the students for the state tests.

How Is My Child Getting Prepared?

While the focus in the classroom should be on learning the content that will be tested, students also need to learn testing strategies and tips throughout the year in preparation for the tests. If your child is familiar with the format of the test, she's likely to be more confident and have fewer jitters. Test-taking skills will also help her in the future in school and on the job.

Look for practice tests

Tonya Breland, an interim vice-principal and Milken Foundation National Educator award recipient, offers these tips to parents: "Most states have practice questions from their tests that you can access. If not, talk to your child's school for practice test questions. It helps you and your child to know what is expected of them. It also allows you an opportunity to work with your child to show support. Feeding your child with belief is equally important. Let them know how much you believe in their success and help them to be mentally, academically and physically prepared during the testing time."

Ask the teacher how tests are regularly used in the classroom

Test questions come in different formats: multiple choice, short response, open-ended response in which students may have to draw diagrams and provide text, essay questions and true/false questions. The teacher should use a variety of formats throughout the year in tests and quizzes across subject areas to allow students to become comfortable and learn different test-taking strategies.

Testing strategies

Many test-taking strategies - understanding directions, estimating, checking work, making an educated guess, predicting and problem solving - should be taught on a daily basis in the classroom. These skills should not be taught as isolated test-taking skills but as skills in relation to each subject area.

Multiple-choice questions

For multiple-choice questions students should learn how to eliminate the wrong answers and choose the answer that makes the most sense. If there are bubbles to fill in, your child should become familiar with the best way to fill them in (i.e. completely fill the bubble but don't go too much outside the lines). Students should also know if there is a penalty for guessing and if there is not they can learn strategies for making educated guesses.

"I always tell my students the following: Guessing is not guesswork!" says Jennifer Thompson, a reading specialist and award-winning teacher. "It is a good idea. Even if you have no idea, you still have a 25% chance of getting the question right. If you can narrow your choices down even further, your chance of getting the question correct increases. For example: Say you have four answer choices and you can eliminate two of them, you now have a 50% chance of getting it correct!"

Reading-comprehension questions

Many tests have reading passages followed by questions about the passage. When answering questions, students should learn how to look for the main idea and supporting ideas in the passage. Students should be reminded to look back in the passage for information. These reading-comprehension skills are in most language arts standards and apply not only to test taking but to all reading material.

Essay questions

The teacher should be teaching strategies that will help your child write a cohesive essay. Students should be taught how to write an outline to help organize their thoughts for a three-paragraph essay. They should then be encouraged to write an outline during the test and proofread their work.

Students should know what is expected of them in their writing. Rubrics - guidelines which tell students what makes an excellent, good, satisfactory or unsatisfactory essay - are tools that help students to do their best work. The teacher may use samples of essays and have students help grade them using rubrics. The goal is to give students a clear understanding of what is expected.

Here are sample writing rubrics by grade level from the Edmund Public Schools in Oaklahoma. If your state uses rubrics to assess students on statewide tests, your school should be using them. Some states use different scoring rubrics at different grade levels. As a parent you should be seeing the rubrics come home with your student's work. If not, ask for copies.

Time management

Students should be told if the state test is timed or not. If the state test is timed, students should have ample opportunities in the classroom to take timed tests in different subject areas. It is important for your child to learn pacing and time management skills. Students should learn tips, such as answering the questions first that are easy for them, and then going back to answer questions that are more difficult. If students have extra time, they should be encouraged to check to make sure they have answered every question. "Kids are kids and they often skip questions on the state test without meaning to," says Kathy Rank, a fourth-grade teacher and Ohio's Teacher of the Year. "If you ask a student if he checked over his work, he would most likely reply 'yes.' However, our test analysis showed that a few questions were skipped.

"I teach my students to systematically touch each question and the corresponding answer in numerical order when they are finished testing. As they touch the question, they count quietly out loud......1, 2, 3 etc. It's amazing how many times you hear, 'Oh, I didn't know I skipped that one.' This strategy is only effective when it is part of the daily routine with both assignments and classroom tests. Touching each question and answer becomes a habit rather than just something to do on a test."

Parents of students in grades 3-6 can use homework as practice for timed tests by setting up "no-stakes" timed situations at home on occasion. This is a great time-management technique for children and will also help to prepare them for the timed state tests.

Managing test stress

Students should feel confident and as relaxed as possible when the time comes to take the state tests. By teaching to the standards, teachers can help ease the uncertainty and stress related to test taking. The teacher's and the school's attitude toward the tests can affect the students' attitudes.

Talking to your child about the test ahead of time is a good way to minimize any stress she feels about taking it. Linda Eisenger, a third-grade teacher and Missouri's Teacher of the Year in 2005 notes: "I tell my students we take the state tests because the state legislature wants to know what the students know, and they want to make sure I, as their teacher, am doing my job."

Getting mentally prepared

"There is also an aspect of psychological preparation that is important for children to have," Karen Heath notes. "They need to know the tests are important, and so an air of seriousness should surround the experience, but the testing should not be introduced as separate from the rest of their school experience.

"I have always told students that these tests are a chance to show what they know or to show off their great thinking. Present the experience as an opportunity to put forth their best effort, while acknowledging that sitting and working for long stretches is not easy." Some teachers may even teach the class relaxing breathing exercises to help ease the tension and prepare them for testing. On the day of the test, it is key that students are mentally and physically prepared.

A good night's sleep and a good breakfast

Tonya Breland suggests: "I tell my students that it is important for them to come to school with their 'A' game. That means come having had a full night's sleep, a good, healthy breakfast and a positive attitude. Those three ingredients are what will lessen their stress, relax them, and put them in the best position to do their absolute best. ...And I tell them that they can do it!"