Testing season has just passed, and helping my 9-year old prepare for her first AIMS (Arizona Instrument to Measure Success) test was a little daunting.  As I’d frequently instructed teachers to do, we started back in August of last year (the beginning of our school year in AZ), and I chose a highly regarded web-based program testing practice program I learned about from another parent called Study Island.

So often, we as teachers approach testing as a scary thing.  Our students end up feeling it.  I remember how much stress I felt when I was teaching prior to testing week.  Several of us got together and studied testing preparation, which differs from testing practice.  Preparation gives students strategies, verbiage to pay attention to, and discussions about strategies for test taking.  Practice is getting the rhythm and form of testing.  Engaging in it looks and feels just like the test – except there may be feedback involved.  Together, we settled on some strategies that worked, and those were ultimately shared in teacher professional development workshops for English Language learners and regular education students alike.

Hannah liked Study Island, but many of the questions were too hard for her at the beginning.  They should have been.  AIMS is a criterion referenced assessment, meaning that it is possible for 100% of the students to get 100% on the test.  These are the skills that a 3rd grader is supposed to know at the end of third grade.  A standardized test places students on the bell curve, and includes skills that are well beyond the third grade year.

So, we used it lightly, taking the tests that followed her curriculum in each subject area.  But come January, and it was time to turn up the heat.  She was required to spend 15 minutes per day, Monday through Thursday, practicing skills on Study Island.  She began to resent me just a little (a mom always knows!), and so I had to help her understand the ‘why’ behind the ‘what.’  I’d succeeded in providing test practice, but I’d not yet done the test preparation.  I decided to employ one of those strategies we’d come up with to help my daughter.

“You know that I’m a teacher trainer, right?  And that Aunt Kathy is a resume writer?  Well, Hannah, there are people in this world who get paid to trick kids.”  Her eyes widened.  “Do you know how?”  She shook her head.  “On tests.  They get paid to trick kids on tests.”

“How, Mommy?” she queried.

“Well, Hannah,” I continued, “you know how each question has four possible answers?  There are usually two answers that couldn’t be right, one that is right, and one answer that’s meant to trick kids.  Do you want to beat the kid trickers?  Because that’s all testing really is – finding ways to beat the kid trickers and showing them what you really know.”

I could see that this held some appeal.  “Want me to show you how to beat the kid trickers?”  She nodded enthusiastically.  “Cool.  Let’s get started.”

I showed her that in nearly every problem, there was one answer that was partly correct.  That was the ‘kid tricker’ answer, and the one to watch out for on tests.  So I had her exclude the two that couldn’t be right, and we settled in to find the one that was.  And, here’s the important part:  She had to tell me WHY the partly correct one was so, and what the difference was between that and the correct one.

From March to April (the month in which kids in Arizona are tested), Hannah’s time (and independence) increased on Study Island from 15 to 30 minutes each night.  She would frequently call out, “I found it!”  I knew what she meant.  She was getting every answer correct the overwhelming majority of the time.

I happened to see her teacher after the first day of testing.  I asked her how Hannah did. “She was the first one done every time,” she responded.  We all know that can mean one of two things – either she was really getting it, or she was marking just about anything.

“Did she seem confident?” I asked.

“Very.”

I wasn’t surprised.