T.E.S.T. Season for Grades 7-12

Preparing Students for the Different Measures of Standardized Testing

The season of state and national tests begins in spring, but the preparation is year round. GETTY Images/Compassionate Eye Foundation/Martin Barraud

Spring is traditionally the season of beginnings, and for middle and high school students, spring is often the beginning of the testing season. There are district tests, state tests, and national tests for students in grades 7-12 that begin in March and continue through the end of the school year. Many of these tests are mandated by legislation. 

In a typical public school, a student will take at least one standardized test annually.

Those high school students who enroll in college credit courses may take even more tests. Each of these standardized tests is designed to take a minimum of 3.5 hours to complete. Adding up this time over the course of the six years between grades 7-12, the average student participates in standardized testing for 21 hours or the equivalent of three full school days.

Educators can first provide the information that helps students better understand the the purpose of a specific test. Is the test going to measure their individual growth or is the test going to measure their performance against others? 

Two Kinds of Standardized Testing for Grades 7-12

The standardized tests that are used in grades 7-12 are either designed as norm-referenced or as criterion referenced tests. Each test is designed for a different measure.

A norm-referenced test is designed to compare and rank students (similar in age or grade) in relation to one another:

"Norm-referenced tests report whether test takers performed better or worse than a hypothetical average student" 

Norm-referenced tests usually are simple to administer and easy to score because they are usually designed as multiple-choice tests.  

The criterion-referenced tests are designed to measure student performance against an expectation:

"Criterion-referenced tests and assessments are designed to measure student performance against a fixed set of predetermined criteria or learning standards"

Learning standards are descriptions by grade level of what students are expected to know and be able to do. The criterion-referenced tests used to measure learning progress can also measure gaps in student learning. 

Preparing Students for the Structure of any Test

Teachers can help prepare students for both kinds standardized tests, both norm-referenced tests and criterion-referenced tests. Educators can explain to students the purpose of both criterion referenced and the norm-referenced test so students will have a better understanding when they read the results. Most importantly, they can expose students to the pace of the exam, to the format of the exam and to the language of the exam.

There are practice passages in texts and online from different tests that will allow students to become more familiar with the format of the test. To prepare students for the pace of the exam, teachers can offer some practice testing under conditions that mimic the actual test. There are released tests or materials that mimic the test that students should be encouraged to take independently.

A timed practice text is particularly helpful is giving students the experience so they will know how fast they have to move to answer all the questions. Multiple practice sessions for timed essay writing should be offered if there is an essay section, for example, like the AP exams. Teachers have to coach students to determine a pace that works for them, and recognize given how much “average” time they will need to read and answer an open-ended question. Students might practice how to survey the whole test at the beginning and then look at the number of questions, point value, and difficulty of each section. This practice will help them to budget their time.

Exposure to the format of the exam will also help student distinguish the amount of time that might be needed in reading multiple choice questions.

For example, one standardized test section requires students answer  75 questions in 45 minutes. That means students have an average of 36 seconds per question. Practice can help students adjust to this speed.

In addition, understanding the format can help students negotiate the layout of a test, especially if the standardized test has moved to an online platform. Online testing means a student must be proficient in keyboarding, and also know which keyboarding feature are available for use. For example, the computer-adaptive tests, like the SBAC, may not allow students to return to a section with an unanswered question. 

Multiple Choice Preparation

Educators can also help students practice with how tests are administered. While some of these remain pen and paper tests, other tests have moved to online testing platforms.

A part of test preparation, educators may offer students the following multiple choice question strategies:

  • If any part of the answer is not true, then the answer is incorrect. 
  • When there are identical responses, then neither is correct.
  • Consider "no change" or "none of the above" as  a valid answer choice.
  • Students should eliminate and cross off those distracting answers that are absurd or obviously incorrect.
  • Recognize transition words that describe relationships between ideas in choosing a response. 
  • The "stem" or start of the question should agree grammatically  (same tense) with the correct answer, so students should quietly read the question aloud to test each possible response.
  • Correct answers may offer relative qualifiers such as "sometimes" or "often", while incorrect answers are generally written in absolute language and do not allow for exceptions.

Before taking any tests, students should know if the test gives a penalty for incorrect responses; if there is no penalty, students should be advised to guess if they don't know the answer.  

If there is a difference in the point value of a question, students should plan on how they will spend time on the more weighted sections of the test.

They should also know how to split their time between multiple choice and essay answers if that is not already separated by section in the test.

Essay or Open-Ended Response Preparation

Another part of test preparation is teaching students to prepare for essays or open-ended responses. Students to write directly on paper tests, take notes or use the highlighting feature on computer tests in order to identify sections that can be used for evidence in essay responses:

  • Follow the directions by looking carefully at keywords: Answer A or B vs. A and B.
  • Use facts in different ways: to compare/ contrast, in sequence or to provide description.
  • Organize facts based on headings in informational texts.
  • Use transitions with enough context in a sentence or paragraph to make the relationships between facts clear.
  • Suggest that students answer easiest questions first.
  • Suggest students write on only one side of the page.
  • Encourage students to leave a large space at the beginning of a response, or to leave a page in between, in the event a student ends up with a different thesis or position or would like to add or to change details later if time permits. 

When time is limited, students should draft an outline by listing key points and the order they plan to answer them.  While this would not count as a complete essay, some credit for evidence and organization may be credited. 

Which Tests are Which?

Tests are often better known by their acronyms than why they are used or what they are testing. To get balanced data from their assessments, some states may have students take norm-referenced tests as well as criterion-referenced tests in different grade levels.

The most familiar norm-referenced tests are those designed to rank students on a "bell curve"

  • The NAEP (The National Assessment of Educational Progress) reports statistical information about student performance and factors related to educational performance for the nation and for specific demographic groups in the population (e.g., race/ethnicity, gender);
  • The  SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test and/or Scholastic Assessment Test); Scores on the SAT range from 400 to 1600, combining test results from two 800-point sections: mathematics, and critical reading and writing. The following states have opted to use the SAT as an high school "exit" exam: Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia*, Idaho* (or ACT), Illinois, Maine*, Michigan, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island*. (*optional)
  •  PSAT/NMSQT a precursor to the SAT. The test is composed of four sections: two Math Sections, Critical Reading, and Writing Skills, used to determine eligibility and qualification for the National Merit Scholarship Program. Students in grades 8-10 are the target audience for the PSAT. 
  • The ACT (American College Test) is four content area tests scored individually on a scale of 1–36, with the composite score as the whole number average. The ACT does have elements of a criterion-referenced in that it also compares how a student performs compared to ACT College Readiness Standards which are regularly reviewed. The following states have opted to use the ACT as an high school "exit" exam:  Colorado, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Utah.
  • ACT Aspire tests map learner progress from elementary grades through high school on a vertical scale which is anchored to the scoring system of the ACT.

Challenges to the tradition of norm-referenced testing came with the expansion of criterion-referenced tests in 2009 when tests were designed to measure the impact of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) These criterion-referenced tests determine how college and career ready a student is in English Language Arts and in mathematics. 

While initially embraced by 48 states, the two testing consortiums have the remaining states committed to using their platforms:

The College Board Advanced Placement (AP) exams are also criterion referenced. These exams are created by the College Board as college-level exams in specific content areas. A high score ("5") on the exam may award college credit.

At the conclusion of the spring testing season, the results of all these tests are then analyzed by different stakeholders in order determine student progress, possible curriculum revision, and in some states, teacher evaluation. The analysis of these tests can guide the development of a school's educational plan for the following school year.

Spring may be the season for testing in the nation's middle and high schools, but preparation for and analysis of these tests are a school year long enterprise.