Seth’s Story

Well, it’s that time again. It is the time of year when pencils are sharpened and heart rates quicken. It is standardized testing season. Every year I am continually amazed at how little my students know about test-taking. I think that as teachers, we are – by and large – good test takers and we don’t really know how we got to be that way. I think we assume that our students come to us each year having been instructed in the ways of testing and must know the basic test-taking skills that will improve their scores.

This is not the case. Prime example: my student – we’ll call him Seth – from several years ago, a 7th grader, came to me just weeks before the state standardized test was to be administrated. It was close enough to the test date that I had already done my cursory test-prep spiel covering the bare minimum of testing skills (i.e. fill out the bubble in pencil, not pen; fill out the bubble completely, not with scribbles, etc.), so he had missed those lessons. So the big day comes and my students are sitting quietly, answering the questions and I’m walking around – because that’s what we do, right? We never sit at our desks… – and monitoring everyone. I notice that Seth is reading diligently and using one of the great test-taking strategies, marking the text. There are meaningful marks on the passages, on the questions and answer choices…I’m ecstatic. I see his bubble sheet tucked up underneath the test booklet; great job, Seth! I said to myself, keep your answers hidden from your neighbors! So time passes and about 5 minutes before the end of the test I notice that Seth has finished and his booklet is closed and his answer sheet is on top of his booklet. His head is down. I walked over and looked at the answer sheet. It is blank. I shook my head in disbelief! I had seen him working! I know how he spent the last hour-or-whatever! How on Earth is his answer sheet blank!? I nudged Seth and he looked up at me. “Where are all your answers?” I asked him quietly. “What do you mean, Miss?” he was confused. “Your answers? I saw you working, but your answer sheet is blank.” “Oh, I marked my answers in the book.”

You marked your answers in the book. How is it possible that you have made it to 7th grade and don’t know that your answers have to go on the bubble sheet?! Worse, why in the world do you think I gave you the bubble sheet in the first place?! And were you not listening to me read the instructions that said “Mark your answers on the answer sheet; answers marked in the test booklet will not be scored?” Thank goodness I’ve caught this with 5 minutes left. I instructed Seth to copy his answers over onto the bubble sheet, and disaster was averted. This situation, however, made me realize that I needed a more systematic approach to test-prep instruction, and that it needed to go up until the day of the test so I could catch as many students as possible.

I call it my “Bubble Boot Camp.” I take students through everything as simple as how to bubble (because you would be amazed at how many kids make it to high school and don’t know how to bubble properly) to legitimate test-taking strategies to improve performance. Every year, I see this instruction pay off. Does every kid pass and make national news headlines? Of course not. But I do see improvements, and the students tell me that it helps them, so that’s enough for me.

My test-prep kit can be found here

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