When I started Instruction Partners and began working deeply and regularly with multiple school systems, I was surprised by some patterns. The same motivational quotes were in almost every school hallway. Many teachers' lounges had the same air freshener. There was a similar tension between certain departments in almost every district.
But no pattern was more obvious or surprising to me than the change in stress, mood, and focus in March for test prep.
I knew test prep season was a thing in the schools that I taught in, but I didn’t realize how much it takes over schools until I saw it happening in every single school visit across six weeks. I knew I had told my students, “you are going to need to know this on the test,” but I didn’t know that almost every classroom in almost every school starts lessons with that phrase for a month. I knew there were test prep books, but I didn’t know how extensively they became curricula for a quarter of the year. I knew some schools had test prep pep rallies, but I didn’t know how much anxiety they created until I sat through several in the stands with students.
I understood the test students were going to take; I had just left working at the state department of education where my team led test design and item and form reviews. Based on what I knew, I was suspicious about whether the strategies I was seeing so frequently in schools would make a difference.
So I went to the research. There was far less than I expected known about what works for test prep in K–12. There were a number of studies evaluating ACT and SAT prep strategies but few on 4th grade math tests. What I read led me to five takeaways:
- Taking one full-length practice test helps students tackle test anxiety and become “test-wise.”
- Instruction that helps students deeply understand the content that will be tested helps students improve their test results.
- Strategies that tap into higher order cognitive skills (e.g., asking “why” questions, asking students to explain their reasoning) help students learn more and retain information better in the long term.
- Students who have a fear of confirming a stereotype about one or more of their identity groups (e.g., women on math tests, Black students on achievement exams) are likely to experience stereotype threat, which can cause them to “over-effort” on the task and negatively impact performance. Stereotype threat can be mitigated by helping students understand it and setting up tasks in a way that does not activate the threat.
- As the test approaches, the most effective test prep focuses on reducing student stress and helping students understand who they are as test takers.
Most of the test prep I see goes against these findings. I see few calming strategies and many hyping strategies. I see more instruction on test format and testing strategies (e.g., lessons on process of elimination) than deep lessons on content. For six weeks, every class feels like a mini practice test, but there are few examples of full-length practice tests. And I see very little attention to stereotype threat or explicitly helping students consider themselves as test takers and how their identity might impact the way they experience the test.
Test prep tends to halt everything else. The curriculum may have four modules, but teachers are lucky to get through two because all attention flips to test prep—limiting students’ opportunities to deeply learn the very content coming on the test.
I have come to think of test prep culture in schools as its own phenomenon. Though it stems from the existence of a test that matters to schools and students, test prep culture has been shaped by forces other than just the test, including folktales of schools that have tried X and it worked, a market of test prep curricula, and, increasingly, the experience teachers had as students during test prep season.
But all cultures—including test prep culture—are the product of choices teams make and significantly influenced by the tone leaders model. The version of test prep culture we see every March is not the inevitable byproduct of there being a test.
What can be done?
For school and system leaders:
- Teams can review test prep strategies in their school with three questions in mind:
- Is this deepening content understanding with a focus on the “why”?
- Is this helping reduce stress?
- Is this helping students understand themselves as a learner?
If the strategy gets three “nos,” reconsider the value.
- Ensure students experience one full-length practice test and can really understand and learn from their mistakes.
- Model calm, confidence, and awareness of what you have learned about yourself as a test taker and explicitly how fear of confirming stereotypes played a role in your own experience.
For policymakers and ecosystem players:
- Look for ways to counteract potential stereotype threat in the set up of the test (e.g., proctor scripts, test coordinator training).
- Promote an understanding of what works and what does not in test prep.
- Call for and/or conduct more research on what works in test prep to help build the case for moving away from practices based on lore that may not be serving students well.
If this is a time we are creating the “new normal,” it is a window in which we can rethink test prep in K–12 schools. Students and families would love it if we did.
Editor’s note: This was first published in an email from Emily Freitag in her role as CEO of Instruction Partners to her email list.