I have never met a student who enjoyed taking standardized tests. On the contrary, common reactions to these tests include frustration, anxiety, and even downright panic. High stakes testing like the ACT and SAT is especially troubling for my students with test anxiety or executive functioning challenges. But for better or worse, standardized testing is an inevitable experience for an American teenager.
Designing curriculum for standardized tests is like taming an ominous monster: the idea is to transform an anxiety-inducing test into something more familiar, comfortable, and useful. My students learn what to expect on test day, from the test layout down to the materials they need to bring to the testing center. They learn strategies for managing their anxiety, for pacing themselves, for tackling challenge questions, and for maintaining focus over the course of multiple hours. But most importantly, students familiarize themselves with the upcoming test by completing practice questions.
Over a hundred years of research has proven that practice questions are the most effective way to study for a test. Rereading notes or listening to a lecture might help, but these techniques lack the crucial element of accurately mimicking a test situation. Consider an athlete who wants to get better at basketball. He can read all the books in the world on the sport, but unless he actually practices dribbling, passing, and shooting the ball, he isn’t likely to improve his game. Just as athletes hone their skills through practice on the field, strong test-takers prepare for a test by recreating the test scenario as closely as possible. That way, when the the time comes to take the actual test, it feels completely familiar—the student has already “taken the test” dozens of times.
Every standardized test prep experience at LAS involves practice questions. For a high-stakes test like the ACT, students practice nearly every day in the months leading up to the big test date. When students meet with their test prep instructor, they grade their work and review the questions they missed. This review process, called an error analysis, completes the practice question technique because students see where and why they made mistakes and develop strategies for correctly answering similar questions in the future.
Though honing in on mistakes can feel uncomfortable at first, I always encourage my students to welcome mistakes as learning opportunities. Mistakes provide insight into the student’s personal thought process, strengths and challenges, and learning style. During an error analysis, I spend a lot of time asking students, “Did you miss this question for reasons of content or process?” This distinction of content vs. process enables us to delve even more deeply into why the student made the mistake.
While “content” refers to the test material that students must know, “process” accounts for other errors like misreading a question, running out of time, accidentally bubbling the wrong answer, or accidentally typing the wrong numbers into a calculator. My students who primarily miss questions for content reasons tend to have comprehension gaps, while my students who make process mistakes often need to reconsider their strategies. The process component of test-taking is often overlooked but helps to explain students who know everything this is to know but still make errors on their tests. By looking closely at mistakes, my students and I can jointly create study plans that target the student’s individual reasons for missing questions.
Through practice questions with error analyses, my students gradually conquer their dread surrounding the standardized test. In the process, they learn valuable study techniques that will help them with future tests, as well. The most frequent comment I get about my test prep workshops is “that was a lot more fun than I expected!” And sure, at the workshops students laugh, they eat snacks, and they sympathize with me and their peers about their nervous feelings surrounding the test; but even beyond those reasons, the workshops are fun because students practice for the test in a way that works. They see their improvements and gradually gain confidence in their test-taking skills. And in the end, they vanquish the standardized test behemoth and find that they’ve made it through the process alive.