Acing the Test: Specific Test Practice vs. Comprehensive Test Prep

High stakes assessments can be stressful. Students need to be prepared to handle the emotional pressure that comes from taking these assessments.

Our teacher says that he gives us tests to find out how much we know. 
Then all the questions are about things we don’t know” (schooljokes.com)

Assessments are a fundamental part of instruction.  It is only through accountability measures that educators can determine whether or not students are meeting goals. According to the George Lucas Educational Foundation, assessments affect “…decisions about grades, placement, advancement, instructional needs, curriculum, and, in some cases, funding. Assessment inspires us to ask these hard questions: Are we teaching what we think we are teaching? Are students learning what they are supposed to be learning? Is there a better way to teach the subject, thereby promoting better learning?”  

Students need to be continually assessed on their progress.  It is only through the careful evaluation of formal and informal assessments that teachers, schools, and districts can determine the efficacy of the instructional programs they provide and can meet the specific needs of their individual students.

Specific Test Practice

Did your stomach knot up when you were a student and your teacher handed you a test?  The main purpose of test practice is to diminish test anxiety so students can succeed on a particular assessment. The education marketplace has many materials, programs, and courses dedicated to practice for specific high stakes tests.  Some provide either previous editions of these assessments, or create new ones, with items that are similar in form and scope to the assessment being targeted. For example, there are dozens of publishers and companies that directly help students practice for tests like the SATs, ACTs, GREs, LSATs and MCATS.  Often test prep companies provide a practice environment that mimics the real test environment, so students feel comfortable during the actual assessment. The main way students improve is by learning specific strategies,  taking practice assessments, reviewing answers, and then repeating the cycle.  If the assessment changes, the course and materials must change accordingly.

Comprehensive Test Prep

What do you think is the main difference between direct test practice and comprehensive test prep?  Comprehensive test prep is more encompassing.  It does not depend on the format of any particular assessment. Rather, it emphasizes the deep skills, strategies, and knowledge students need, not only to succeed on assessments, but to be independent, thoughtful learners. It provides students with the tools to understand new things and figure out solutions to new problems.

So how do we prepare students for tests in a more encompassing way?  We need to teach them the skills and strategies to read closely, think analytically, construct meaning from interesting/relevant material, and use what they know to solve problems. Learning only happens when people make connections between what they already know and new information. Therefore, we must personalize learning by continually assessing student understanding, determining what misconceptions they have, and evaluating their ability to use appropriate strategies to master new material.  We need to see if students can transfer what they learn to solve new problems. If we want to help students do their best on all assessments, we must teach general test taking skills. This includes how to analyze what’s being asked in different question formats, how to determine what’s relevant and important, how to use context clues to understand new concepts, how to eliminate incorrect answers, and so on.

There is a place for both test practice and test prep in our education system.  However, the far more important mission of education, is to honor the goal of enabling our children to become critical and analytical readers, clear writers, proficient problem solvers, and deep thinkers. This is the only way to ensure success not only on assessments, but in our ever-changing world.

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