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Education Trends, Teaching Tips & Tricks, Podcast Articles   |   Apr 26, 2015

How to balance test prep and authentic learning

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

How to balance test prep and authentic learning

By Angela Watson

You’re a teacher, not a tester. In this episode, you’ll learn strategies for staying focused on what’s really important, both in your mindset and your daily practice. Discover specific, practical tips for getting creative with test prep so it feels more like the authentic learning activities that matter most.

This post is based on the latest episode of my weekly podcast, Angela Watson’s Truth for Teachers. A podcast is essentially a talk radio show that you can listen to online or download and take with you wherever you go. I release a new episode each Sunday and feature it here on the blog to help you get energized and motivated for the week ahead. Learn more about the podcast, view blog posts for all past episodes, or subscribe in iTunes to get new episodes right away.

A big thank you to this episode’s sponsor, GoNoodle. GoNoodle is a free website with interactive videos and games to help kids focus during the school day! I love GoNoodle because it makes it super easy for teachers to find the energizing OR calming breaks students need to stay engaged. Teachers can sign-up for free at GoNoodle.com!

So let’s dive right into today’s topic on balancing test prep and teaching. If you’re a regular listener of Truth for Teachers or if you’ve read my new book Unshakeable: 20 Ways to Enjoy Teaching Every Day… No Matter What, then you know I can’t talk about high stakes tests without emphasizing the importance of having a clearly defined vision for why you teach. No matter how others may choose to evaluate your work, you can’t define your own success as a teacher according to whether students pass a standardized test. That’s a recipe for frustration and burnout.

Instead, get clear about the reason why you do what you do. You have a reason for being in this profession that goes beyond just getting a paycheck–there are a lot easier ways to get a paycheck in this world. Why are you in the classroom? Do you want to make a difference in lives of troubled kids? Do you want to inspire kids to love learning?

Go into the classroom each day with a single-minded focus on making a meaningful impact on kids. Keep that in the forefront of your mind at all times. Remind yourself of it when you enter the classroom each morning, and reflect on it every afternoon when you leave the building. You have a purpose, a calling, a unique opportunity to impact the next generation … and all of this goes far beyond anything related to a test.

A strong vision for teaching will permeate everything you do in the classroom. It will bring a deeper sense of purpose to otherwise disheartening test prep activities. It will help you keep your (bigger, healthier) perspective even if everyone around you is focused on scores.

How to balance test prep and authentic learning

Staying focused on your vision will also help you keep your enthusiasm, which makes learning more enjoyable for kids. If you’re stressed out from focusing too much on high stakes assessment, students will sense that, and it creates anxiety in them, too.

One of the best things you can do for students is to stop reminding them about the importance of standardized tests. When I first started teaching in Florida, I was horrified to learn that 3rd graders who didn’t pass The Test would be retained. I felt tremendous pressure to get all the kids on grade level because their future was on the line — not passing the test was going to cost them an entire year of their lives spent repeating third grade.

I used to get very stressed out because I felt like I cared more about my kids’ scores than most of them did, so I would constantly remind them, “Pay attention! You need to know this —the test is in two months! If you don’t pass this test, you’re going to be in third grade again next year!” It was part of the school culture there at that time. All the teachers around me were doing this too, so I thought it was okay. In fact, I thought I was doing my kids a favor because I was making sure they knew what was at stake.

I always send home parent surveys to get feedback on how the school year went. Generally, I let parents complete these anonymously because I wanted an honest critique. And that year, one of the parents said that I stressed her son out so much that his stomach was in knots every single day. She said he didn’t sleep at night, he was crying, and was just constantly anxious about passing the test.

Reading that made ME sick to MY stomach. I had no idea who the child was because none of the parents or kids had reported anything like that to me during the school year. It was a complete shock, and it’s part of the reason why I think parent surveys are so important. If I hadn’t specifically asked for feedback just for me — nothing that gets reported to my principal, or gets factored into my evaluation, just a personal reflection tool — I would never have known and I probably would have tortured the next year’s class without even realizing it.

I realized when I read that parent’s comments that I was not helping my kids by over-emphasizing the test. It seems kind of obvious now in retrospect, but when your job and kids’ futures are on the line and students are sitting there goofing off and playing around in class, I think it’s natural to want to put the pressure on their shoulders and try to make them take things seriously.

But the solution is probably the exact opposite. Too many people are already taking the test too seriously, and the kids who aren’t, won’t change just because you’re yelling and threatening them with retention.


Kids need to know the importance of the test, but more importantly, they need to know the importance of learning and hard work. So we have to stay focused on getting them motivated and helping them take ownership of their learning. We have to help them see the value of the task at hand so they are intrinsically motivated.

And we have to give them valuable tasks, too. We can’t fault for kids for not being gritty and putting forth effort if the majority of tasks they’re given are boring, rote, and meaningless. So, constantly looking for new ways to help kids practice tested skills in authentic contexts and real-world projects is critical. That takes time and energy on our part, for sure. But the effort pays itself back in spades because student engagement goes up and teaching becomes more enjoyable. We can’t wait for someone else to make teaching fun again, we have to plan for it!

We can exercise our creativity and figure out ways for kids to practice tested skills without using a test prep format. Students do need to know test-taking strategies and be familiar with the format of the standardized tests they’ll be taking, but most kids don’t need daily (or even weekly) exposure to the format.


We can experiment with alternative strategies for implementing the test prep activities and worksheets we’re mandated to give. For example, instead of passing out a review worksheet each day as an independent warm up, occasionally project the page for your class to see, and have them work with a partner to solve problems collaboratively and talk about their strategies.That gets kids talking and thinking deeply as they have to explain their thinking and agree on strategies to use.

You can try reviewing the answers from a regular test prep activity together in a playful game format. Have kids award themselves a point for each answer they get right, and challenge them to reach a set number of points by the end of the month. Or have them play “Scoot”, where there’s one problem on a card at each student desk, which kids answer on their own sheet of paper. Every 30 seconds, they scoot one seat to the right and answer the question that’s on the desk they moved to. Scoot is so fun and kids love getting the chance to move around in between answering questions.

You can also pass out individual dry erase boards, and as you display each problem for the class to solve, have kids write the answer on their boards. They can hold the boards up for you to see and give immediate feedback on. There’s something about using markers and boards that make even test prep more engaging for kids.

And if you have iPads in your classroom, students can use a free app like Show Me to record their work. Have them solve in the app, writing directly on the screen and recording the narration of how they solved.

I like this strategy because it encourages kids to think deeply about the question and their own thinking: Rather than rushing through five questions and just picking ABC or D, they’re getting to delve deeply into one specific question or strategy and explain their reasoning. Since this is just a practice activity, you don’t even have to have students submit the work to you for assessment: They can save it in their digital portfolio, or play it for a classmate and share strategies, then delete it.

Simple strategies like these keep you and your students from feeling overburdened with worksheets and make the test prep feel like more like the other, meaningful activities you do in class.

Ultimately, we teach students, not standards. Don’t wait for someone in your district or state to reiterate that: Make it true in your daily practice.

You are more than a test score, and so are your students. Click To Tweet
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Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela created the first version of this site in 2003, when she was a classroom teacher herself. With 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach, Angela oversees and contributes regularly to...
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  1. Hello,
    Love this episode!
    Just curious on your thoughts about a teacher’s salary being based off of his/her students tests scores?? I do many of the amazing strategies you list above but if they happen to not work & my salary is lowered & I can’t support my family because of 3 state tests, I think it’s going to be pretty stressful. That tends to make it extremely hard to not “teach to the test”.
    Thank you

    1. Hi, Julie! I’m glad you enjoyed the episode. I agree that tying teachers’ salaries to test scores leads to immense pressure to teach to the test. I can say from my own experience, though, that my students did NOT learn better when I gave them more multiple choice practice tests. The more authentic reading experiences I gave them, the more they enjoyed reading and the better they got at it.

      It took tremendous faith in the process to believe that creating strong readers would lead to creating strong test scores. Not all of the kids who were good readers tested well. But in general, I did see a correlation between my students’ ability to read well and their test scores, so I tried to stay focused on doing things in the classroom that helped them learn how to read, not just how to take tests about reading. It is a tough, tough balance.

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