Preparing Students for Standardized Tests

Right about this time of year, teachers really start to feel the pressure that comes along with high-stakes testing. Personally, I know that as an 11th grade teacher, my colleagues, my school, and my district are all counting on me to prepare my students for the test as best as I can. And while educators across the nation know that the results are not a direct reflection of a single teacher for a single grade-level, it is still difficult to not feel the pressure. I am the last English teachers my students will have before they take a test that means a great deal to the school.

So how do we cope with the stress of high-stakes testing, prepare our students as best as we can, and continue to teach the content we love so much that inspired us to become educators in the first place? Well, it’s tricky, but it can be done.

First and foremost, test prep should not be teaching to the test! The last thing our students need is a drill and kill curriculum delivery method that prevents authentic learning. This only hurts our students in the long run. Instead, we need to understand what is on the test and how we can incorporate that into our lessons without presenting it as test-prep.

Whether you are preparing students to take the SBAC or the PARCC, here are several different ways you can help prepare your students for three components of the test.

Textual analysis is the backbone of the test. Not only do students need to be able to read and comprehend comprehensive texts, they also need to be able to analyze, dissect, and interpret it as well. One skill that I emphasize throughout the year is the ability to identify an argument and the evidence in which an author uses to support the argument.

Here are some questions I use throughout the year with any text to teach this concept.
  • What is the author’s purpose? Provide textual evidence that demonstrates this purpose.
  • What is the author’s main argument? What evidence does the author use to support the argument?
  • Evaluate the evidence the author uses to support his or her argument.

In order to give my students a foundational understanding of how to analyze text, there are two lessons that I teach toward the beginning of the year, or at the beginning of my argument unit. The first lesson I teach to is a lesson about annotating text that helps students learn how to annotate and break down text. This lesson (Annotating Text Made Easy) includes a step-by-step demonstration of how to annotate text, and it gives students the confidence they need for annotating text on their own.
The second lesson that I find is very helpful is a rhetorical analysis lesson that dives deeper into the subject.  

In addition to knowing how to read, interpret, and analyze text, knowing academic vocabulary is also critically important. If students go into the test with a strong knowledge of academic vocabulary words, they will have a better understanding of the question.

Here is a FREE Quizlet Study Set of these words for you to use them in your classroom. You can copy the list and assign it to your students, and you can also play Quizlet Live with your students!

In order to help my students master academic vocabulary they will encounter on the test, I provide them with academic vocabulary lessons throughout the year. My Academic Vocabulary Bundle includes more than 200 academic vocabulary words, plus activities, puzzles, and quizzes!

Just as students need to be able to analyze text and point out the main argument and supporting evidence, they also need to be able to include these elements in their own writing. I recently blogged about my writing philosophy, and this method of grading helps students improve their writing. In order to score well, students need to include multiple detailed, specific, relevant examples in their writing.

One way I incorporate this into my lesson is through daily bell ringers. I will project a question and require students to answer with a two-sentence or three-sentence response. It can be any question that requires an example, and this works for novels, current events, or nonfiction.

Once students master the two-sentence response, I move on to a three-sentence response. For the third sentence, students add on an explanation of the example and how it supports the answer of the question.
What Students Should Know:
  • Different types writing
  • How to revise writing to make it more clear
  • Transitions that help readers understand sequence and order
  • Basic writing organization

To help students prepare better written responses, I have them use these writing checklists in class. When using these checklists with my students, I first have them read and reread the prompt, answer the questions about the prompt, write their response, and then check their response using the checklist. You can download these checklists and a classroom poster for free HERE.

One lesson that helps my students with this portion of the test is my Topic Sentence and Body Paragraphs writing lesson. With a detailed, step-by-step PowerPoint, I teach my students about the basic format of a paragraph. I walk them through all of the various elements of the paragraph, and include color-coded examples to help them learn the concept. Students need to know how to write a paragraph with a topic sentence, evidence, and explanation.

Listening is a difficult portion of the test for the students because they are so used to having the text in front of them. We emphasize reading, close reading, and annotating so often, that we sometimes force our students to rely on visuals as a crutch.

In order to prepare my students for the listening portion of the test, I use in my classroom. It is an amazing site that is filled with NPR and Marketplace news stories about current issues that can seamlessly be integrated into thematic units we teach throughout the year. I love Listenwise because I can always find a story that is relevant to the novel I am reading with my students, and it has questions for students to answer with every single story. When I use Listenwise in my classroom, I display the questions on the overhead, explain the questions to my students before we listen to the story, and emphasize to my students that they will need to answer the questions with evidence from the story. Then I play the story for the whole class, and my students work individually to answer the questions.

This is somewhat difficult for the students in the beginning, but after a while the students get better at the listening tasks. As a suggestion, if you’ve never done a listening activity before, start with a shorter story to begin with, and then build to a longer story.

Here is another resource to help you prepare your students for standardized testing.
Presto Plans - Standardized Test Terms Poster and Activity


  1. So many great strategies for helping kids prepare for these tests. Thanks for sharing, Christina!

  2. Great post!! Thanks for sharing all of these great ideas!

  3. Those response writing checklists are awesome! Love 'em! Luckily here in Canada we don't have nearly the amount of testing you guys seem to have, but what testing we do have, I will absolutely be referring to this post. Thanks :-)

  4. As someone who has the worst test anxiety ever, I totally appreciate the organization and layout of these! Thanks so much!

  5. Good idea! I do the student work days too, and during these days they complete any unfinished work and revise some grammar)
    Socratic seminar is also a great thing to do!!!



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