As a math consultant, I am often faced with the challenge of improving standardized test scores. My initial response is always to facilitate lessons centered deeply in constructivism, providing lots of meaningful moments where students can begin to see themselves as capable mathematicians. I am a big believer in the Field of Dreams proverb, “If you build it, they will come.”
Lessons that are unreservedly grounded in students making sense of numbers and then combining that knowledge in new ways will cultivate an appreciation of concepts and will further advance problem solving skills, which in turn improves test scores. Why? Because students learn HOW to think mathematically, not just WHAT to think. They notice and wonder about patterns and trends across topics and reason WHY answers make sense or why they don’t make sense.
As someone who loves research, I wondered what else I could do to help students improve their test taking ability. In Teaching Numeracy, I spent over ten years identifying what qualities it takes to become a proficient mathematician. I noticed, studied, and experimented my way through to discovery. I questioned how I might use this same qualitative approach to test taking. Do proficient test takers share common observable behaviors during test taking and if so, can I promote a learning environment where all students can have access to them?
Just like in the numeracy research, I began by observing students. In Pennsylvania, students are tested over six days, usually for 90 minutes or so each day, alternating days for math and reading. I asked permission to sit in six different classrooms, one per day, for the entire testing period. My purpose was to listen and watch students as they took the test and record whatever I noticed.
I did not come to this experience with any presumed ideas. I simply wanted the trends to emerge on their own, identifying behavior patterns that seemed both helpful and detrimental to test taking and then I recorded students’ names that used these behaviors frequently during the 90 minutes.
After the test, I interviewed those students and later looked up their test scores from last year’s assessment in order to analyze for trends. I discovered two patterns of behaviors: one common to those who scored at least proficient and another pattern for those who scored basic or below basic.
In this posting, I’d like to first share the two trends I discovered in the research. In addition, you will find ideas attached that promote good test taking skills in both reading and math. These two handouts have been beneficial for students across grade levels. The third attachment is a wonderful collaborative effort amongst Donna Boucher (Math Coach’s Corner), Frankie Robinson (The Educator’s Book Club), and me. It is a list of “Fix-up Tools” to use while problem solving. Learning to be more metacognitive helps students recognize when their attention waivers, using certain tools to get them back on track; consequently then feeling more confident to persist.
Discovery #1 – Using positive self-talk will propel you forward before and during standardized tests.
While recording behaviors on testing day right before the test was handed out, I was surprised to hear two such contrasting remarks. Most of the students shared a hatred for the tests. However, after verbalizing their overall aversion to testing, the conversation differed drastically amongst students; and there were basically two pools of thought.
Some students began a verbal feedback loop that I believe would have to work against them. Several stated they never do well on these tests, others shared they are just not good test takers and never will be, and some said they do poorly all the time, so why even try? As a teacher-at-heart, it was challenging not to intervene here, but I did not want to influence the conversation, thus manipulating the authenticity of the moment.
On a more positive note, there were some students, who even though they admittedly hated taking standardized tests, did not allow the test to define them. They somehow separated the experience of taking the test from their self-worth. They surrendered to the idea that test taking is here to stay and oh well; they would just do their best and that would be enough. A few also added they would not let the test take them down and that soon it would all be over.
During interviews, I discovered another common theme amongst the examinees. I asked students what happens when they came across a really hard problem. The same students I recorded with a more negative feedback loop were generally harder on themselves when things got tough. They shared that immediately they got anxious and said something self-destructive like, “I don’t know this; I’m just not good at math,” or “I can’t do this; forget even trying. I’m never going to be good at school.” This type of self-talk is hard to recover from during a test.
Whereas, the same students who refused to let the tests define them as successes or failures approached challenging problems with a very different feedback loop. Whenever this group came across a difficult problem, they would more likely think, “This is a tough one; I can get it. I just need to find some way in,” or “This one is going to rough, take a deep breath. I can do this; I’ve done harder stuff before.” A few students used the worthwhile advice of asking “What would I do if I did know?” to construct some entry way into the problem. With these thoughts, they were better able to relax, have faith, and refocus.
Discovery #2 – It requires a lot of mental stamina to stay focused during test taking and that takes time to develop.
One thing that really stood out to me during my observations was how quickly students’ concentration began to waiver during test taking. Only ten minutes in and several of them started to show signs of mental exhaustion: glazed looks, heavy sighs, and slumped body postures.
One’s attention span refers to how long a person can remain focused on a task without becoming distracted. A common formula for figuring out how many minutes a person can focus on a task without wavering is to use age: one minute of concentrated effort per age up to adding one minute to that age. There is a maximum capacity for attentiveness for adults, however, which ranges from fifteen to twenty minutes, according to what you read. So a typical third grader taking standardized tests should be able to stay focused for about nine or ten minutes before requiring a brain break. Now add a third grader’s need for active learning that captures their attention with novelty, interest, and emotion. That nine-year-old is faced with how to effectively navigate through 90 minutes of boredom, low action demands, and silence. What’s a third grader to do?
We, as teachers, need to advise students to plan ahead for these setbacks during test taking. Similar to sports, it takes a lot of training to be able to deliver at peak performance. Athletes need to work their muscles to build physical endurance. Well, the brain is like a muscle; it gets stronger with practice.
I work with students all the time on improving test scores. Below is my advice I give them on our first session together:
Increase your Cognitive Stamina: Before the day of the test, you will need to train your brain to remain focused for at least 20 minutes uninterrupted. You can do this by practicing some type of concentrated activity every day. Put a timer on and begin by doing this for 5 minutes. Then add two more minutes per day until you have reached your goal. Continue the 20-minute sessions each day. I recommend the Brain Fitness games offered on thinkfun.com. I like them because they are independent, self-paced, and offer three levels of difficulty. My students’ two favorite Think Fun games are Chocolate Fix and Traffic Jam, but any of them are great. Of course, it is not the particular activity that matters. It could be focusing on a Sudoku puzzle. What is important is that by the day of the test, you are able to fully concentrate without drifting for at least 20 minutes uninterrupted. Building cognitive stamina takes time and deliberate effort.
Another behavior I discovered was a shocker; I witnessed a few students passively filling in circles while their eyes were literally off the test. This action surprised me because during those moments, the students resembled what might look like testing zombies. And then, just as suddenly, they seemed to be able to focus again. Unfortunately for these students, two or more questions were answered without notice. I wondered if this could be the reason behind that all-too-common “get two answers wrong, then five right, and then two more wrong” pattern I remembered my students suffering from at times. Could it be that if we are not strategic in preplanning necessary brain breaks during the test, our brains will take them anyway? From what I witnessed, I’d say yes!
Attached are some worthwhile resources for helping students improve their test-taking skills. All three handouts are tried-and-true, across both grade level and content area. They are my gift to you and your students.
- As You Take a Standardized Math Test
- As You Take a Standardized Reading Test
- Math Fix-Up Tools