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Test Preparation Strategies for Kindergarten Through Middle School

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Sharpen those pencils: We've got teachers' and tutors' secrets to helping kids ace any test.

Choose the Response That Best Answers the Following: 

Tests Are ______________

A. Given even in kindergarten these days

B. Harder than when you were in school

C. Used to help place your child on the fast track—or knock him off it

D. Scary, but something you can help your child succeed at

E. All of the above

Time's Up! The Answer is E—and thank goodness, because A, B, C, and D are all true, too. In large part, you can thank (or blame) the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which established standards that public schools must meet. “It's caused major shifts in testing,” says Betsy Brown, who's helmed third- and fourth-grade classrooms for 11 years. “We're forced to show growth, measured through state tests.”

The result? Trickle-down classroom testing. But that's not all bad, says Richard Phelps, author of The Standardized Testing Primer. He looked at more than 3,000 studies on the effects of exams and found that kids who take frequent tests significantly outperform those who don't. The key is preparing in smart ways, then taking tests in stride. Here are teachers' and experts' tips on how your kid can do that.

Kindergarten: Tykes ‘n’ Tests

No, your 5-year-old won't need to solve that big equation on the blackboard at the start of Good Will Hunting. But at least half of all states now mandate at least one assessment in kindergarten. Some children undergo tests even earlier. “We do a voluntary screening three weeks prior to the start of class,” says Heidi Sykes, a kindergarten teacher at Sara Lindemuth Primary School, in Harrisburg, PA. Some parents feel testing kids this young can backfire: “Our son, Jasen, shut down and answered ‘I don't know’ to practically everything, even though at home he can count past two hundred,” complains Marina Nicola of Henderson, NV, about the assessments Jasen took right after school began. But the good news is, many schools test young kids so subtly, kids don't realize they're being evaluated at all.

Give Your Kid the Home Advantage

Deck It Out

Take a little time in the evening to break out cards and play War or Old Maid, Sykes advises. “It'll boost your child's number recognition.”

Sign on For Success  

“A lot of learning is environmental,” says Sykes. “So if you're at a stop sign, for example, point to it and say to yor child, ‘That sign over there says STOP!’”

Become a Director

Help your kid learn to follow simple directions: “Please take off your shoes and put them by the door,” for instance. “Have him say ‘OK’ to acknowledge he's heard you, and then he should follow through,” Sykes says. “A lot of kids tend to tune out adults, so you have to get your child out of that habit.” Focusing and listening are key skills for answering test questions.

Get in Shapes

PBSKids.org has games that make it hip to identify squares, triangles, and more—try The Cat in the Hat Great Shape race, for instance.

1st Grade: Match Games and More

If your child isn't reading by the end of kindergarten, now is when he'll be expected to learn. Weekly reading and spelling tests usually debut in first grade. Typically, your child will be expected to read (or listen to) a small passage, then answer a few questions about it (using complete sentences by year's end). He may also be asked to match words to pictures or identify rhyming word pairs. As for learning to spell, Amy Holscher, who's been teaching first grade at Franklin Elementary School, in Vincennes, IN, for the past decade, gives the kids ten-word lists, many of which will have the same ending, like “map” and “tap.” Last of all, expect mini–math exams every week or two. And it's not just stuff like “1 + 2 = ___?” these days, stresses Holscher. “A typical question might be ‘Tim and Bob like to collect rocks. Tim found 4 and Bob found 5. Write a sentence explaining how many they collected.’”

Give Your Kid the Home Advantage

Read, Read, Read

The more, the better! According to the Children's Reading Foundation, schools deliver 85 percent of their curriculum through printed words.

Dig Deeper With Questions

Instead of just asking your child what happened in a story, ask what he thinks would happen if something in it changed (“Do you think Tom and Imani would have made as much money if they'd sold hot chocolate instead of ice cream at the ball game?”).

Be a Word-Blender

Take an ending, like “op,” and make different words from it with your child, like “mop,” “pop,” and “cop.” But don't stop there: “gop” and “rop” are fine, too. “It's about teaching kids to blend letters and learn phonics,” Holscher says. Kidzphonics.com has similar games online.

Do Drillmaster Duty

Practice your child's spelling list with her. “Have her write each word five times, then quiz her on it. Do it again the following day, and have her write out any words she missed a few extra times,” Holscher says.

Second Grade: Leveling Off

In first grade, your child's teacher may have subdivided the kids into smaller groups for certain subjects at some point, based on ability. In second grade, it might happen sooner: “I want to give them as much personalized instruction as possible,” says Jennifer Feldman, who taught second grade for five years at P.S. 115 in Canarsie, NY. What group your child ends up in may often be based on, yup, testing. “I gauge things like whether they know their short-vowel sounds and certain high-frequency words,” says Amanda Swartz, a second-grade teacher at Braddock Elementary School, in Fairfax, VA. Expect weekly tests in reading and spelling. This time speed may count: “I'll test to see how many words the children can read in a minute,” Swartz says. There will be a math test every few weeks as well. In terms of number-crunching, you may see tests on things like whether a number is even or odd, and whether a certain digit in a three-digit number is in the ones, tens, or hundreds place. A new kind of assessment may be thrown into the mix as well: how well your child can maintain a reading journal. “In state tests, kids are often asked to read passages and answer questions giving examples from the text,” says Lindsay Tomao, who teaches second grade at P.S. 274 in Bushwick, NY. Her assignments reflect that: “They'll read a book like Junie B. Jones and write about her as a person. If they say she's impatient, I expect them to explain why.” Last, some second-graders get tested on a third subject, too. In Swartz's class, that's science: They'll study a unit on, say, magnets, and the kids will be tested on concepts like poles and attraction.

Give Your Kid the Home Advantage

Keep Up Nightly Reading

But ask your child to spend at least five minutes of it reading the material aloud to you. “You'll quickly see which words he tends to stumble on, and be able to focus on helping him with those,” says Swartz.

Keep Practicing Spelling Words Nightly

Feldman advises parents to mix it up: “I'll often send the kids home with a crossword using all the words one night, and tell them they have to put them all in alphabetical order the next. The third night, they have to use each of the words—spelled correctly—in a story.” The point is to get your kid familiar with the word in lots of different ways. Adds Tomao: “I tell parents to buy their child a slate or a white board. Kids love experiencing the textures of new writing instruments and surfaces.”

Use Your Calendar As a Math Aid

Each day, look at the date together, and have your child determine whether it's an odd or even number.” Softschools.com has a fun odd-and-even numbers game, too.

Take a Gamble

Roll a pair of dice and have your child make a two-digit number from the dots on each. Then have him roll the dice a second time to create another two-digit number. Have him determine whether the new number that he's made is smaller or larger than his first.

3rd Grade: The State of the Test

If your child hasn't undergone state testing by now, this is almost certainly the grade when he will. Expect a three-day test in language arts, usually in mid to late spring, preceded or followed by a math test administered over the course of two days. A lot of the less-formal tests your kid will take in class this year are designed as precursors to the Big Ones. Tests may get longer, maybe 20 minutes or more: “I'm looking to see if the kids can sit and work on something independently, as they'll have to do for state tests,” says third-grade teacher Betsy Brown. And reading-comp questions may require short-form essay answers because, says Brown, “I need to see that they can explain what they've read.” Kids will be encouraged to explain material from multiple perspectives—for example, trying to determine the author's attitude toward a character. Math tests will increasingly be timed; “it's vital they know their facts to do advanced math,” she says. Your child may be asked to see how many addition or subtraction problems he can zip through in five minutes, then later, in just a minute or two.

Give Your Kid the Home Advantage

Encourage Independence

Don't jump in to help your child sound out words and solve homework problems—instead, have him tackle the assignment solo for at least ten minutes, telling him you'll go over it all after that.

Start With The Hard Stuff

If he's better at subtraction than multiplication, try tackling his times tables while he's fresh, advises psychologist and performance coach Ben Bernstein, Ph.D., author of Test Success! How to Be Calm, Confident and Focused on Any Test.

Help Her Find A New Reading Audience

“Our daughter Irene reads out loud to her cats or her dolls,” says Jennifer Turner of Manheim, PA. It's a great outlet when a kid feels too old to huddle over a book with Mom or Dad anymore.

Give Quizzes In The Car

You've got your kid captive as you ferry him around—what better time to ask him what four times four is, or eight minus three? “Make it into a back-and-forth game,” Brown recommends.

Explain It's Ok To Skip Questions

In timed-test situations, it's crucial, stresses test coach Rick Kamal, founder of the EduNova study-skills company. “Kids get hung up on feeling bad about not getting something and end up losing time.”

4th Grade: Test Early Test Often

No matter what the subject, your child's going to start getting tested more frequently now. Expect weekly or twice-weekly tests and quizzes in math, English, science, and social studies. “Expectations are changing as your child gets older, and he needs to be able to handle a larger workload,” says Jamie Morvay, who's taught fourth grade for five years at Horizon Community Learning Center elementary school, in Phoenix. Reading tests get more complex—instead of just basic comprehension, kids are asked to use context clues and write short essays. Spelling tests may still be given, only now they can encompass 20 words at a time. Fourth-grade math tests often feature long division with remainders, more drilling on multiplication, and, as the year goes on, tap skills like reading loooong numbers and breaking them down by place value.

Give Your Kid the Home Advantage

Get A New Set Of Highlighters

Teach your child to underline all the objects in a reading passage, says Chris Tobias, author of 101 Secrets to Passing Any Test. “If he's reading about the life cycle of bears, he should be underlining ‘bears,’ ‘trees,’ ‘honey,’ and so on. Then he should go back and also underline all the verbs. These will form anchors for his mind and teach him to also interact with the content on reading-comprehension tests.”

Work On Your Act

With so much more material to memorize than in previous years, “the more you can make it fun, the better your child will do,” says Morvay, who suggests making up songs or poems (“Hey, kid, know what's great? Six times eight is forty-eight!”).

Practice Visualization Techniques...

...to help your child memorize long lists, says test coach Kamal. “Say your child needs to memorize that the top exports of a certain country are beef, wheat, and poultry. Have him build a mental image of a cow with a chicken standing on its back. The chicken could have wheat sheaves in its mouth. It's a way of learning to recall unrelated items.”

Crunch Numbers Casually

Pull out the grocery receipt and ask your child which digit in your total represents the hundreds place. (The two? My goodness, are you people eating lobster tails every night?) Visit toonuniversity.com for a silly place-value game that rewards kids with virtual prizes like giant bags of money.

5th Grade: Get On Your Thinking Caps

For some kids, fifth grade marks the start of middle school—and even if it doesn't, teachers consider their students to be big kids by this point. “We take that growth into consideration as we create tests,” says Kara Cochrane, a fifth-grade teacher at Horizon Community. “We want them to show their thought processes.” If it's a math quiz, your child won't just be expected to, say, compare two decimals and point out the larger one. Instead, he'll have to show it, breaking down the number on a place-value chart. Reading test? She won't be asked just to summarize a story but to determine if a character is wise or not and write a short essay giving evidence that bolsters her points of view. Multiple-choice questions will have tricky answers, to see if your child grasps nuances and reads instructions carefully.

Give Your Kid the Home Advantage

Encourage Him To Look Over His Notes Every Night

Even if there won't be a test the next day, or week, spend a few minutes together each evening going over what he jotted down in each subject in class. “It'll reinforce the information and help him retain it longer-term,” Cochrane says.

Spend A Few Minutes On Math And Science Practice Problems Each Night

Almost all textbooks have corresponding websites these days where kids can do drills and hone their skills. Or else create or search for some on your own. “Try a website like Funbrain.com,” Cochrane says.

Teach Your Kid A Trick...

...from the pros for managing multiple-choice questions. “If there's a question that has an A through E option, and the last answer is ‘all of the above,’ and at least two of the others above it are true, you can definitely go with ‘all of the above,’ explains test coach Kamal. ”It's a time-saver.”

Discuss Books And Movies More Critically Than In The Past

Is iCarly's brother Spencer a success, because he's doing what he loves, or a failure, because he's a starving artist? Have your child give her reasons for her answer. It'll help her sharpen her analytical powers.

6th Grade: Mini-Mixmasters

Tests might include questions of all kinds. Your kid will answer with written explanations, essays, analogies, or diagrams, or by selecting among multiple choices—often all in the same exam. “The links to math and science are huge in our grade,” says Michael Falk, a sixth-grade teacher at St. Mary's Visitation School, in Elm Grove, WI. “We use charts, graphs, and the metric system in science questions. And in math class, kids use the scientific method to solve math problems, starting with a hypothesis and then taking steps in order to test it.”

It's not surprising that your child may be at a loss as to how to prepare for exams. “I do a lot of modeling. I'll read through my notes in front of them and say, ‘Hmm, I don't remember what this word means. I'd better look it up!” says Aliza Peyser, a sixth-grade teacher at Yeshivat Noam, a private elementary school in Paramus, NJ.

Give Your Kid the Home Advantage

Turn Him Into The Teacher

“I have my son study material independently, then I ask him to paraphrase what he's learned,” says Karen Stewartson, the mom of a sixth-grader in Orangevale, CA. If your child can't get the idea across, research it together. Tip: If he doesn't understand or say a word properly, merriamwebster.com has both written definitions and audio pronunciation files.

Encourage Him To Read Instructions Carefully

Whether your kid's looking over a recipe or the owner's pamphlet to his new MP3 player, urge him to scan every word. It's a habit that can help as he approaches tests. “This is the grade when questions can trip you up, since we're blending so many methods,” says Falk.

Bet on It

Get your child to make predictions about little things around the house. When you're doing laundry, for example, say “Do you think this sweater will air-dry in less time than this shirt?” and get him to explain his reasons. It's great practice for hypothesizing.

Get The C.O.P.S. On Your Child's Side

Style as well as substance counts. Use this trick from Emily Levy, Ph.D., of EBL Coaching, a tutoring company: “Tell your child to write ‘C.O.P.S.’ on his test page, then use it as his reminder to go back and check for proper capitalization, organization, punctuation, and spelling.”

Seventh Grade: Digging Deep and Going Long

Your kid will start taking tests that last a full class period, about 40 to 45 minutes. And those are just the ones he can predict—some teachers add in the excitement of a pop quiz now and then. History, science, and English tests will often involve essays, along with multiple-choice questions, short-form answers, and even graphing and map-making when appropriate. Dominic Monacelli, who teaches seventh-grade social studies at Lyons High School in Lyons, NY, says he mixes up his testing formats: “I give individualized and standardized exams,” he explains. “The kids learn to differentiate between different kinds of instruction, and they get a chance to be successful depending on their strengths and learning styles.”

Project-based tests may make their first appearance this year, too; kids will be asked to create things like posters, artwork, or books based on a subject they've studied in depth. “I'll also give kids tests on things they've observed or heard on school field trips,” says Gary Newman, a seventh-grade teacher at St. Mary's. “We're assessing their knowledge in broader ways.” If this is the first year of middle school in your district, there may be year-end exams, too.

Give Your Kid the Home Advantage

Help Him Take Nicer Notes

“Have him divide the page into two columns, then write the topic—for example, World War I—on the top of the page,” says tutor Levy. “He should label one column ‘main ideas’ and the other ‘details,’ then divide the info he hears into one category or the other. This will make it easier to find what he needs later.”

Make Time For Reviewing Work Every Night

If your child tells you that he has no homework in a subject, reply “Great! Then just look over your notes,” and make sure he does it. “He'll have about ninety percent less anxiety if there's a surprise quiz the next day, and he'll also be so much better prepared for it,” Monacelli points out.

Don't Just Go By The Book

“Almost every textbook for kids this age has a corresponding website, where they can play a few interactive review games and take some quizzes on the material,” says Newman. “Encourage your child to use them—they cover the material thoroughly and are ideal for getting ready for tests.”

Ask Teachers For Their Honest Feedback...

...on your child's strengths and weaknesses. There will be so much material to cover, in every single subject, that you (and he) need to know where to focus his efforts. “Don't just wait for an Open House or a parent-teacher conference,” says Monacelli. A phone call (or an e-mail) works just fine.

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