How to Help Kids Who Don’t Test Well

In this op-ed, a Kentucky Teacher of the Year shares some tips to help parents work with their kids on testing anxiety.

High-stakes exams aren't going away anytime soon. (AFP/Getty Images)

Jul 12, 2013
is the 2013 Kentucky High School Teacher of the Year and a National Fellow with Hope Street Group.

In today’s testing environment, parents and students can quickly become dismayed if the student is unable to effectively display what they know on traditional assessments.

Within the classroom I assess students in a variety of ways, but ultimately formal tests are part of the equation. In my Advanced Placement Human Geography class the students are well aware of the May exam they are expected to take and pass.

While “teaching to the test” often comes with a negative connotation, I am of the opinion that we fail to teach to the test too often and that is actually a detriment to students. Students should never be surprised by the format and content of assessments. 

In my classroom I teach not only content, but also test-taking strategies. Too often we neglect to have conversations with students regarding assessment structures and strategies, which leads to unnecessary anxiety and also compromises the ability for teachers and others to truly test the students’ content knowledge. 

During the summer months, while time pressures and other academic issues are often absent, it is a good time for parents and students to work on testing issues associated with formal assessments.

There are a variety of strategies students can employ to help increase their testing effectiveness. None of them are magical, but they are proven to help increase student scores.

First, know and practice the format of the test. Students should not be surprised about the question types. If the teacher does not share the information, then ask. If the test is a major standardized test, then a quick online search will typically reveal not only the format, but also practice questions. 

Students need to strategize ahead of time regarding their approach to the test. For example, if the test is divided into sections that are given at the same time, it is generally best to begin with the section the student views as the easiest and then move to the section that is most difficult.

If the student has to begin with a particular section, then start with the easiest question in the section and work for there.

If a student does not test well but truly knows the content, it is usually due to self-confidence during testing situations. For a student who lacks testing confidence, multiple-choice questions are the worst type because a child will second-guess and talk themselves into selecting an incorrect option. 

Look and see if there are a lot of erasure marks on past multiple choice tests to indicate if this is an issue. Then employ these steps:

  1. Cover up the answer choices with paper and instead focus on the question.
  2. Write down brief answers to the question, as if it were an open-ended question.
  3. Examine the answer choices and pick the one that is similar to what was written in step two.

This testing strategy takes a bit of practice, but once a student becomes proficient at this method, their speed of answering questions and their accuracy will increase.

This method is especially helpful on multiple choice exams that contain one or more answer choices that while factually correct, do not answer the question asked.

Reframe the conversation around assessments. Instead of focusing on the potential to miss questions, talk about the opportunity to display what the student knows. Look at testing as part of the learning process—not just in regards to content, but in terms of illustrating more about the learner. 

Is a particular type of question missed? Is there particular content that is a challenge? What study techniques and classroom experiences seemed to help the most?

After a test, instead of focusing on the score, analyze the test to see what information can be gleaned to perform better on future tests.


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