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Talking With Students About Standardized Tests


We start state testing in two weeks, and I’ve just begun to have conversations with students about them (you can see my previous posts about these tests at My Best Posts On How To Prepare For Standardized Tests (And Why They’re Bad)).

I began on Friday after being inspired by an online survey Alice Mercer did with her students. She’ll be writing her own post analyzing the survey results. (By the way, I think doing surveys in classrooms where relationships exist, students will share their responses with each other, and then the whole class talks about it, are fine. In community organizing, we always felt that a survey was only good if it was used as an excuse to start people talking. Outside of that relational context, I’m less convinced of their usefulness because I think people will tend to answer what they think they should, rather than what they really think.)

I wrote this question on the board as part of our regular Friday reflection:

Do you think it’s important to try your best on your test? If so, why? If not, why not?

I’m pretty confident that students are pretty honest in their responses to these kinds of questions — we’ve been able to develop that kind of classroom culture. Because it was a shortened day, we didn’t really have time to discuss their answers, but will tomorrow. Here are some of them:

Yes, it’s important because it’ll decide the placement of classes you will take next year.

Yes, because if you don’t do your best then you will be in a stupid class.

Yes, because if you don’t try you won’t get a good education.

It is important because if you don’t try the people will think that you are dumb and put you in dumb classes.

I’ve been thinking very carefully about the points I want to make in my conversations with them. I don’t want to communicate to them that the tests are going to measure how smart they are. And I don’t want to communicate a message like “You should always try your best” because, let’s face it, as the old community organizing saying goes: “Not all things are worth doing well.” All tasks are not made equal.

A colleague and I were talking today about how sad it is that we have to spend so much energy trying to think of a true reason it’s in the genuine self-interest of our students to try their best on these tests. We don’t have that problem with anything else we teach during the year!

This is what I finally concluded:

As part of the class discussion, one point I’m going to make is that the test results, along with their grades, are going to be the first impressions that teachers are going to have of them — before they actually meet them face-to-face. And first impressions can last awhile. I will tell them that even though I question whether these tests are an accurate measure of their ability, even I find myself making pre-judgments on students before I meet them after looking at their grades and test scores. The test scores will have some impact on classes they’ll be entering in the future, but less so here are our school because I and other teacher will be making recommendations based on what we know about them. However, they know that students can move, and that many students do. When that happens, no teacher or administrator will know them at their new schools, and their class placement will pretty much just be based on grades and test scores.

In addition, I’d like them to remember that it’s always best to make decisions that keep options open instead of closing them. Doing the best on the tests will do that for them.

I’ve printed out individual bar graphs comparing how they’ve done in their previous two years. On the computer, they’re color-coded to show at which level each student scored — Far below basic, Below basic, Basic, Proficient, Advanced. In my print-outs, they’re black and white, so the level is not clear to the student. It seems to me that showing many of my students that they’re considered “far below basic” or “below basic” is not going to be very helpful. I’m planning on telling them the number they need to reach in order to reach the “next level” and asking them if they think they can do that; if they want to do that; and, if so, what can they do over the next couple of weeks to help them accomplish their goal. We’ve done a lot on goal-setting, and it’s worked well.

What do you think? I’m all ears to hear ideas on how to talk with students about these tests….

Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.


  1. I’m not a fan of Venn Diagrams when it comes to writing, however, I make an exception for a test prep activity. I used it as a special ed teacher and it worked great for my students. I’ve been sharing it with teachers as a consultant and continue to get positive feedback about it’s effectiveness. First, my students and I brainstormed all of the things we do when we’re reading – “underline important details”, “make connections to our own lives”, etc.. Then, we put them into two circles: Real Life and Testing Day. My goal was to help the students see that all of the cool things we do when we’re reading in “real life” don’t apply the day of the test. Likewise, I don’t want you reading with the purpose of answering multiple choice question in the real world. For behaviors that overlapped (noting the main idea of a text, identifying important details) we talked about what makes them useful in testing situations. Articulating the difference between behaviors was immensely helpful to help them understand what mental models to bring to play the day of the test.

    The piece I never had the chance to tell my students and I always regret, is the truth about the test. Now, I share with teachers the data about the test so they can put it in the right frame for their students. The NYS 6th grade test will be taken by over 200K students. Students from the Bronx, to Buffalo, to Lake Placid, to Friendship. Every question has a right answer that’s true for all students – if it’s you’re answering based on a personal connection, you’ve probably picked the wrong choice. Always, always, always use the text to answer your question and you’ll be fine.

    Finally, I can’t find the research but I remember reading an article about kinesthetic awareness. Then whenever you do “test prep” or any activity that relates only to something the day of the test, have the students move their seats into testing position. This doesn’t work, of course, if they test in a large room or separate settings but the goal is to have them dissociate “learning” from “testing” emotionally, rationally, and physically.

    I’m fascinated by the concept of testing anxiety and test prep without corruption and look forward to continuing this conversation!

  2. Larry –

    Your statement about how hard it is to justify and motivate students for the state test is quite telling. It is indeed a dilemma. I refuse to lie to students and say that the tests have any particular value to the students individually. I am willing to say that our state and community are quite interested in our test scores, and to the extent that our school performs well, we all benefit. I will also say something similar to what you’ve come up with. My version goes like this: these test results will be connected to you, and I see no value in attaching information to your name that reflects anything other than your best effort.

    However, as I’ve blogged about myself, there are plenty of teenagers who will listen to those pitches from me, reject them, and do what they want. And that’s the nature of some people – adults and teens alike. They will not be convinced, or compelled.

  3. You are the only person in education I’ve ever heard say that not everything is worth doing well. Teachers have cussed me out for saying that. Maybe it’s because we didn’t spend all our lives in the classroom that we have a different take on what’s worth doing.

  4. I teach middle school English, and I take some time to tell my students about their cumulative file that is in the office. Most have never heard of it, and many don’t believe me. I tell them to check it out; they have the right to see it, and the counselor will sit with them while they look at it. I tell them what is in it: their report cards, state test scores and discipline records since kindergarten, oh, and all their school pictures. (I think they are more concerned about the pictures and discipline records than anything else.)

    I also tell them that sometimes their teachers see their files before they meet them personally, and those test scores will leave an impression. I also tell them that test-taking is a part of education, like it or not. So if they plan to pass the high school exit exam or any of the other tests their teachers in high school and college will give them, they ought to take advantage of the chance to practice with these state tests. I also tell them that this test is their chance to show that no matter what their report card grades show, they are smart. They have learned something this year. Show them. Show yourself.

    They trust me. I encourage them to do their best. I won’t be there when they get those scores in the mail over the summer. I am doing them a disservice if I don’t give them every opportunity to do their best. I don’t want them to open those scores in the mail in August and think their teacher hadn’t done her job to prepare them. I want them to be proud of themselves when they see those scores.

  5. Pingback: Week in Lab: Truancy Edition | Reflections on Teaching

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