ERIC Identifier: ED429987
Publication Date: 1999-04-00
Author: Calkins, Lucy - Montgomery, Kate - Santman, Donna
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Assessment and Evaluation College Park
Helping Children Master the Tricks and Avoid the Traps of
Standardized Tests. ERIC Digest.
Adapted with permission from A Teacher's Guide to Standardized Reading Tests.
Knowledge is Power (1998) by Lucy Calkins, Kate Montgomery, and Donna Santman,
Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Heinemann.
Children can improve and change their
test-taking habits if they are taught about their misleading work patterns.
Teaching children about the traps they tend to fall into may well be the most
powerful, specific preparation teachers can give them for the day of the test.
By studying the habits of young test takers, we uncovered some of their common
mistakes. This Digest lists some of these mistakes and suggests several teaching
strategies that may be useful to teachers who are preparing their class to take
USE THE TEXT TO PICK YOUR ANSWER
When it comes to choosing
an answer, many children are much more likely to turn to their own memories or
experiences than to the hard-to-understand text for their answers. This issue
becomes even more difficult when the passage is an excerpt from a text with
which the students are familiar. Many new reading tests use passages from
well-known children's literature, including those stories that have been made
into movies. In this case, many students justify their answers by referring to
these movies or their memory of hearing the story when they were younger.
While these personal connections are helpful if the student is at a complete
loss for an answer, it's essential for children to understand that relying on
opinions, memories, or personal experience is not a reliable strategy for
finding answers that a test maker has decided are correct. Clearly, many
questions asked on the tests require prior knowledge to answer, but the problem
comes when students rely exclusively on that prior knowledge and ignore the
information presented in the passage. Some things that teachers may wish to do
in order to help their students avoid making this mistake include the following:
- Teach students to underline parts of the passage that might be asked in the
- Help children develop scavenger-hunt-type lists of things to look for as they
read the passages by having them read the questions first
- Teach students to find out how many questions they can hold in their minds as
they read the passage
- Show children how to fill in all the answers on each test booklet page before
filling in the corresponding bubbles on the answer sheet
- Teach children ways to mark the passage in order to make it easier to go back
to find or check specific parts these include writing key words in the margins
and circling or underlining
- Show students how to use an index card to block out distracting print or to
act as a placeholder
- Retype familiar or easy text to look as daunting and dense as the test
passages to give children confidence and experience in the test format.
SOMETIMES IT'S HELPFUL TO REFER TO YOUR OWN LIFE
In the reading comprehension sections of a reading test,
children must find evidence in the passages to support their answers. Yet, there
are parts of many reading tests where the only things students can rely on are
their own previous experiences. In these sections, students are asked to choose
the correct spelling of the underlined word or to choose the word whose meaning
is closest to that of the underlined word.
Often students prepare for these sections of the tests by taking practice
tests and then going over the answers. However, it is highly unlikely that any
of the same words would appear on the actual test. Therefore, teachers may wish
to impress upon children the importance of creating a context for the variety of
words that may be found on the test by relating those words to their own
personal reading experiences. In order to facilitate that thinking process,
teachers may wish to help children ask themselves such questions as "Have I seen
this word before in a book?" "Where have I heard that before?" or "What words or
events usually happen around this word?" while they are answering vocabulary or
LEARN TO READ THE QUESTION
It is always assumed that if
children have reading troubles, their wrong answers stem from difficulty reading
the passages. However, this is not always the case. Sometimes, reading the
questions, a much less familiar task, can prove to be the greatest reading
challenge for the students. This is because questions such as "How was the
central problem resolved?" or "Which statement is NOT true about the narrator?",
are not the types of questions children are asking themselves and each other
about the books they read.
Studying various types of questions can be a helpful practice to future test
takers. This can be done by searching through practice tests and making lists of
the types of questions. Although the questions will be different on the day of
the test, this exercise may familiarize students with the types of questions
that are asked on standardized tests.
CHOOSE THE ANSWER TO THE QUESTION
Sometimes children choose
their answer by finding the first answer choice that matches something in the
text. Unfortunately, by not considering what the question was actually asking,
they are tricked into choosing the wrong answer simply because it may state a
fact that was included in the story.
One teaching strategy that can help students avoid this mistake is to present
a text with questions in a standardized test format. With a partner, the child
should figure out what the different questions are asking, and write down their
paraphrased versions. Many times children will be surprised at how different
their paraphrasing is from what the question is actually asking. It may be a
good practice for teachers to look at the different paraphrasings with the class
and discuss which interpretations would help the members of the class and which
would lead them astray. This allows students to strengthen their skills at
finding the true meaning of the questions.
RISK AN UNFAMILIAR CHOICE
Frequently, students avoid
choosing an answer simply because it contains an unknown word even when they
know the other choices are probably wrong. Thus, teachers should advise students
not to overlook the possibility that the answer which contains the unfamiliar
word may be the correct choice. Teachers often try to teach children a way of
narrowing down the answer choices through a process of elimination. Despite the
fact that this process can be very helpful, many students eliminate two
possibilities and then, from the last two, just sort of pick one. They don't, it
seems, try to figure out a reason to choose one over the other. They seem to
wrongly assume that the two choices left are equally possible. However, teachers
should teach students that thoughtful elimination between the two last
possibilities can lead to the correct choice.
CHECK YOUR ANSWERS
After the harrowing ordeal of taking a
standardized test, the last thing that students usually want to hear coming from
their teacher is "Did you check your answers?" Frequently, the biggest reason
kids hate checking answers is because they have only one strategy for doing so:
opening their test booklets to the first passage and beginning again. To them,
checking answers means taking the test again. However, that does not have to be
the case. There are a variety of different strategies that students can use for
selectively going back through the test and reconsidering answers. One of these
strategies is teaching children to only check the problems of which they were
unsure. It is unnecessary to return to questions about which students feel
fairly confident. Students can keep track of the troublesome questions while
they are actually taking the test. They can do this in several different ways:
jotting down the numbers of the questions on a separate sheet of paper, circling
the numbers in the test booklet, etc. Students should also know that it is okay
to take a short break (stretching in their seats, bathroom/drink break) before
going back and checking the answers. This will give them a chance to clear their
minds a little bit. Most importantly, students should be taught to attempt to
check the answers to the troublesome questions using a new strategy so that they
may avoid reusing possibly faulty problem-solving methods.
SETTING THE TONE FOR TEST DAY
Although teachers may do
their best to prepare their students for standardized tests, every teacher has
stories of children dissolving into tears on the day of tests. Even if their
feelings aren't so obvious, all children feel the pressure of doing well. Be
sure you don't add to the pressure by over reacting to small deeds of
misbehavior or by over emphasizing the fact that today is a testing day.
Calkins, L., Montgomery, K. and Santman,
D. (1998). A Teacher's Guide to Standardized Tests. Knowledge Is Power.
Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Mitchell, R. (1992). Testing for learning: How new approaches to evaluation
can improve American schools. New York: The Free Press.
Perrone, V. (Ed.). (1991). Expanding student assessment. Alexandria, VA:
Shepard, L. (February, 1995). Using assessment to improve learning.
Educational Leadership, 38-43.