Standardized tests are a unique text genre, and they require readers and writers to do different things than they would normally, so teachers can’t assume that students already know how to take reading tests. It’s essential that teachers prepare students to take high-stakes tests without abandoning a balanced approach to instruction that’s aligned to state standards (Calkins, Montgomery, & Santman, 1998). Greene and Melton (2007) agree; they maintain that teachers must prepare students for high-stakes tests without sacrificing their instructional program. Unfortunately, with the pressure to raise test scores, some teachers are having students take more multiple-choice tests while writing fewer essays and creating fewer projects.

Hollingworth (2007) recommends these five ways to prepare students for high-stakes tests without sacrificing the instructional program:

  • Teachers check that their state’s curriculum standards align with their instructional program and make any needed adjustments to ensure that they’re teaching what’s going to be on the test.
  • Teachers set goals with students and use informal assessments to regularly monitor their progress.
  • Teachers actively engage students in authentic literacy activities so that they become capable readers and writers.
  • Teachers explain the purpose of the tests and how the results will be used, without making students anxious.
  • Teachers stick with a balanced approach that combines explicit instruction and authentic application.

Other researchers advise that in addition to these recommendations, teachers prepare students to take standardized tests by teaching them how to read and answer test items and having them take practice tests to hone their test-taking strategies (McCabe, 2003). Preparing for tests involves explaining their purpose, examining the genre and format of multiple-choice tests, teaching the formal language of tests and test-taking strategies, and providing opportunities for students to take practice tests; and these lessons should be folded into the existing instructional program, not replace it. Greene and Melton (2007) organized test preparation into minilessons that they taught as part of reading workshop.

The Genre of Standardized Tests

Students need opportunities to examine old test forms to learn about the genre of standardized tests and how test questions are formatted. They’ll notice that tests look different than other texts they’ve read; they’re typically printed in black and white, the text is dense, and few illustrations are included. Sometimes words, phrases, and lines in the text are numbered, bolded, or underlined. Through this exploration, students begin to think about what makes one type of text harder to read than others, and with practice, they get used to how tests are formatted so that they’re better able to read them.

The Language of Testing

Standardized reading tests use formal language that’s unfamiliar to many students. For example, some tests use the word passage instead of text and author’s intent instead of main idea. Test makers also use locate, except, theme, reveal, inform, reason, in order to, provide suspense, and other words that students may not understand. Greene and Melton (2007) call the language of testing “test talk” and explain that “students are helpless on standardized reading tests if they can’t decipher test talk” (p. 8). Students need help understanding test talk so that high-stakes tests really measure what they know.

Test-Taking Strategies

Students vary the test-taking strategies they use according to the type of test they’re taking. Most standardized tests employ multiple-choice questions. Here’s a list of test-taking strategies that students use to answer multiple-choice questions:

  • Read the entire question first. Students read the entire question first to make sure they understand what it’s asking. For questions about a reading passage, students read the questions first to guide their reading.
  • Look for key words in the question. Students identify key words in the question, such as compare, except, and author’s intent, that will guide them to choose the correct answer.
  • Read all answer choices before choosing the correct answer. After students read the question, they stop and think about the answer before reading all the possible answers. Then they eliminate the unlikely answer choices and identify the correct answer.
  • Answer easier questions first. Students answer the questions they know, skipping the difficult ones, and then they go back and answer the questions they skipped.
  • Make smart guesses. When students don’t know the answer to a question, they make a smart guess, unless there’s a penalty for guessing. To make a smart guess, students eliminate the answer choices they’re sure are wrong, think about what they know about the topic, and then pick the best remaining answer choice. The correct answer is often the longest one.
  • Stick with your first answer. Students shouldn’t second-guess themselves; their first answer is probably right. They shouldn’t change answers unless they’re certain that their first answer was wrong.
  • Pace yourself. Students budget their time wisely so they’ll be able to finish the test. They don’t spend too much time on any one question.
  • Check your work carefully. Students check that they’ve answered every question, if they finish early.

Students use these test-taking strategies along with reading strategies, including determining importance, questioning, and rereading, when they’re taking standardized tests. Teaching students about question-answer-relationships helps them to understand that sometimes answers to test questions can be found in a passage they’ve just read, or they have to use their own knowledge.

Preparing for tests should be embedded in literacy activities and not take up a great deal of instructional time. Teachers often teach test-taking strategies through minilessons where they explain the strategy, model its use, and provide opportunities for guided practice and discussion. Greene and Melton (2007) recommend teaching minilessons on test-taking strategies as well as the genre of tests, test formats, and the language of tests as part of reading workshop. They reported that their students, many of whom are English learners and struggling readers and writers, became more confident and empowered test-takers through test-preparation minilessons, and their test scores improved.

Practice Tests

Teachers design practice tests with the same types of items used on the standardized tests students will take. They use easy-to read materials for practice tests so students can focus on practicing test-taking strategies without being challenged by the difficulty level of the text or the questions. They include a combination of unrelated narrative, poetic, and expository passages on the tests because all three types of texts are used on high-stakes tests. Teachers also provide answer sheets similar to those used on the standardized test so that students gain experience using them. So that students will be familiar with the testing conditions, teachers simulate them in the classroom or take students to where the test will be administered for practice sessions. Through these practice tests, students develop both confidence in their test-taking abilities and the stamina to persist through long tests.

Preparation for reading tests is especially important because when students aren’t familiar with multiple-choice tests, they’ll score lower than they otherwise would. Don’t confuse test preparation with teaching to the test: Preparing for a test involves teaching students how to take a test, whereas teaching to the test is the unethical practice of drilling students on actual questions from old tests. The term “teaching to the test” is also used in a less pejorative way to describe when teachers tailor instruction to meet state-mandated standards.