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Help Your Tween or Teen Get Smart About Tests

Here's how you can help your child succeed on tests and make sure that tests are tools for learning at school.

By GreatSchools Staff

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.

Comments from readers

"mi child need help in math and readin so i seeing can she take a quiz before she go to fifth grade cause i want her to be smart"
"This article is, for the most part, useless. Everything in here has been handed out time and time again. For many students the things that are given here and having the knowledge don't make the deciding facotr on whether or not a student has a test taking anxiety. I, as a student, know all of this. Teachers have taught it to me. I've studied it, etc. but it does nothing for the perfectionist that just freaks out about taking tests. When you have test anxiety all of those 'skills' you've learned go away and you forget EVERYTHING to the point of not being sure you spelled your name right. 'S-A-R-A-H...Wait, do I really have an H at the end?' It seems funny, but it's the truth. "
"Great tips thanks for the info. Do you know of good programs or classes which would help students prep for the SAT. I would like some recommendations for classes which really help in Math prep."
"Great Tips!!!! I will implement these tips into our daily one on one. I think it will help us go above and beyond!! Thanks Again"
"Very helpfull Tips! about 90% of them are used in my school, Maybe that is why we have had the highest API scores in 2 counties"