It’s everybody’s (least) favorite time of year again! Students, parents, and teachers alike are starting to feel the pressure of the looming ELA/Math NY State Tests. First offered to students in grade 3, they become mandatory from grades 4-8.
Let’s face it- standardized testing isn’t fun. However, as it is, standardized testing is used everywhere. It’s used for admission into competitive classes. It’s used as a way to judge schools and affect teachers’ pay. It’s necessary for college applications. It’s required for graduate programs and many professions. So while unfortunate, it’s a necessary skill to master. And while the state tests aren’t exactly as important as the SAT, their scores can have a direct impact on your child’s admission into middle and high schools.
As an educational consultant and the founder of Altiora Tutoring, I spend my days helping kids overcome their testing anxiety and teaching them the necessary skills to tackle future exams. Often, my test prep students come to me as a tearful mess, overwhelmed with anxiety from their impending exams. It’s no easy task to bring them from that stressful puddle and into a place of confidence, but with the tips I’m about to share with you, you’ll see how much of an impact you can really have.
I know, helping your kids develop a positive relationship with standardized test prep might sound like an impossible prospect. But I’ve found that in the hundreds of students I’ve worked with, the parents who took an active role in contributing to their children’s education ended up with much more capable students in the long run. And dare I say it, helping your children with their homework and test prep can even be a valuable bonding experience.
So here are seven things you can do as a family to help your child prepare for the state tests, without stress.
- 1) Slowly expose your child to previous years’ exam questions, as they cover similar material in school.
The State Tests, especially the math sections, are designed to closely mirror the material your child is learning in the common core curriculum.
There are a few factors that combine to make standardized exams more stressful for kids than usual tests. In addition to the tests being longer and more “important” than others, the questions are worded differently than what they’re used to in their homework and school tests. It’s important that they get used to the wording on the state tests, so they can identify what each question is asking and how it relates to their school material.
To get your child accustomed to the actual test wording, download the last few years’ exams for your child’s grade level (via engageny.org), and separate out the questions that relate to what they’re covering in school. Give them a few questions each week, optimally when they’re relaxed and when you’re available to talk them through the material. You might want to start with 1-2 questions each day, as “bonus” material after their homework.
If your child resists the extra work, shower it with positivity. Put a sticker or stamp on each completed question, if you need to. You could even have them “earn” a small reward for getting a week’s worth of stickers.
It’s important not to neglect earlier material, even if they’re already confident with it. If it’s been months since they’ve seen something, it’s still easy for them to forget how to do it. To avoid that issue, just select a few questions each week from the material they have already covered, and work them in as a review. If they need more practice with a question type, make it a larger proportion of their review until they are confident with it.
- 2) Make Test Prep a Family Activity
A lot of people take a hands-off role in their kids’ education. After all, it’s important to help kids foster independent work ethics. But in a lot of cases, kids being left alone to work on a stack of worksheets and practice problems can cause more feelings of stress than it’s worth.
Instead, try sitting with your kids and working on the problems together. In a lot of cases, I’ll work on my own sheet of the same problems that my students are working on, so they feel that we’re in this as a team. When they have a question, we compare our work and see where mistakes were made. Sometimes, I’ll ask them to even explain a question to me! It helps them feel ownership over the material when they have to think like a teacher and “help” me with it.
At the very least, it can make a big difference if you’re just there sitting next to them as they work. You should also read over the questions before they start working, so you can quickly address any questions as they may arise without being put on the spot.
- 3) Make up activities and games to help your child see the real-world applications of the material.
A lot of the math questions lend themselves to making fun games and activities.
For example, the 3rd and 4th grade Math exams may ask questions on solving areas and volumes of different shapes. You can go around the house with a tape measure and take turns solving the area of the dining room table, the living room rug, and the bedroom wall together. You can solve the volume of the toy box and the beach ball.
For fractions, you can figure out which fraction of the bathroom tiles are black, how many crayons in the bin are shades of blue, and how many books on the shelf are hardcover. You can make pizzas, pies, and cakes together and practice cutting them into different fractions.
Real applications of math are all around us, and helping your child to think about them in day-to-day life will help them in all their future math courses.
- 4) Read together as a family ritual, and discuss the literature together.
The ELA state tests tend to focus on a specific type of story—they are usually 1-2 pages of a self-contained narrative. Folk legends are extraordinarily popular, as are other fairy-tale style stories with morals. There are also usually a few historical/informational texts and biographies mixed in
As a matter of course, I recommend that all families try to make a ritual of frequently reading with their children. Some of my fondest childhood memories were sitting by the fire as my parents read a chapter or two of a book aloud to me, and the daily habit of reading helped turned me into an avid bookworm (with excellent reading scores!). Read all kinds of material to your children—simple stories, chapter books, articles, and biographies. But in addition to reading out loud, you also need to make sure your children understand the story.
Look at the released ELA exams from previous years. You’ll notice that there are certain trends in the multiple choice and essay questions—they might ask:
- “Why did a certain character do X?”
- “What is the main idea behind paragraph 3?”
- “What does this quote mean?”
- “What lesson did the character learn?”
- “What is the meaning of this phrase/word?”
As you read with your children, bring up the talking points from the state tests, as adapted to fit your readings. If they misinterpret a question or give an answer that indicates they don’t understand the material, go back and read the relevant parts of the passage together. Get them in the habit of finding supporting evidence for their answers, and understanding how to find the relevant quotes.
Every so often, you should practice written response answers together as well. As many of those answers require the students to quote evidence from the text, really get them in the habit of writing with the story next to them and referencing it at least once or twice in an answer.
- 5) Make test prep a positive experience.
Nothing is more detrimental to a child’s test prep journey than negative emotions. If a child is criticized for struggling with the material, they’re more likely to give up than they are to try harder.
When your kids sense high stress and expectations from their teachers and parents, it puts a lot of pressure on them to perform. Sometimes they can become overwhelmed with the need to make everybody happy. Sometimes they shut down, and refuse to practice as a way to assert their independence. So it’s in everybody’s best interests to keep the pressure low.
Test prep is a lot of effort for kids. So make sure to let them know you appreciate the work they are putting in, even if it’s not as much as you want them to. Even if you expect them to study just because you asked them to, they will study more frequently and with a better attitude if their contributions are acknowledged, and if their failures aren’t criticized too harshly. You can say things like:
- “I’m really proud of you for working so hard today, even though you were tired.”
- “You were so close with that question! It’s a tough one. Let’s try looking at this way instead.”
- “Great job finishing all those, I’m really impressed you got so many right!”
- “You’ve been improving so much, it looks like your hard work has been paying off!”
It’s also important to model a positive attitude about the work they’re doing. If they see that you dislike the material or get stressed out from helping them, it will shape their own attitudes towards it. Instead, put on a positive attitude when talking about the material and helping them.
When I say things like “Oh, I love this part of math! Let me show you how it works, isn’t that cool?” or “I really enjoy this story, let’s read it together!” my students end up having a much more positive attitude towards the material than the one they started with. When they may have started sessions “hating math” or thinking “reading is boring,” they usually end up asking me for more math homework or gleefully picking a new book to borrow from my library.
- 6) Make sure they’ve done at least one full-length practice test before the actual exam.
Often, students may be confident with the test material, but panic when faced with doing all the questions at once. It’s important to know how your child responds to a practice test well in advance so you can address any problems that arise.
Often, a practice test is given in school, so there’s no need to worry about it at home. But if the teachers aren’t giving full-length exams, you should set aside some free days to go over the material.
The State Tests are usually divided into three days each, with no time limit to cover that day’s portion of the material. Obviously, taking 6 days off of school for ELA and Math practice isn’t feasible or advisable. Instead, divide the material in half instead of thirds, and cover it on a weekend.
Unlike previous practice, this practice test should be as close as possible to the test environment. So make sure your child has a quiet place to work with no distractions.
Even though giving them half the test material instead of a third is slightly more rigorous than the actual test will be, it’s a good experience. That way, when the actual test comes around, it will feel like a breeze in comparison.
Once the practice test is done, make sure your child knows you’re proud of them and appreciate their hard work. Have an easy, calm day afterwards.
- 7) Don’t over-prepare, or make it a huge deal. Plan a fun event for after the exam so they associate it with something positive.
It’s easy to look at standardized tests like their results will make or break your child’s future. And while it’s true that some tests do have a tremendous impact on which schools your child gets in to, the state tests are fairly low-impact in that regard. If anything, it’s better look at these exams as a practice for other standardized exams in the future.
If over-preparing and putting a lot of pressure on your child gives them bad memories of test prep, it will negatively color their future exams. They may just shut down when faced with next year’s state test, because they dread all the work and pressure. They may be traumatized by a parental reaction from a low score, and figure that there’s no point in even trying next time. I’ve worked with students who had a yearly pattern of being so stressed out that they threw up during their exams, because they were worried about their parent’s and teacher’s reactions. It took a lot of time and patience to help them relax enough to take the exams without vomiting.
Plus, if you lay on the pressure for every standardized test they ever encounter, they won’t know when to take it seriously or not. It’s best to monitor your reactions and save the more rigorous preparation for the tests that actually can have a large impact on your child’s future, like the SHSAT, the ISEE, and the SAT. But even with those exams, students will perform better in a low pressure environment than a high pressure one.
Don’t do any heavy prep in the days right before the test, especially practice tests. They aren’t going to learn anything useful at the last minute, and due to the “recency effect,” they’ll preferentially remember the last thing they studied at the cost of earlier material. It’s best to use the days before the exam to relax.
Plan something fun for after the test. Not so fun that it will distract them from their performance (no trips to Disneyworld), but something pleasant they can enjoy peacefully, like a play date or a trip to get a favorite food.
Overall, the ability to perform on standardized tests is an unfortunate but necessary skill. By starting preparation casually and well in advance, you can expose your children to the necessary skills without stressing them out. Know your child’s curriculum, and synergize as much prep material as you can with their schoolwork. Make sure they are familiar with the exam conditions by taking a full practice test, and plan a positive experience for afterwards. Try to keep pressure low, so they don’t feel overwhelmed with the need to perform.
By helping them build a positive relationship with success and failure, you can help them overcome future challenges.