Strategies to improve performance on standardized tests

According to, students in the United States have been taking standardized tests since the 1800s. Standardized tests require students to answer questions selected from a common bank of questions. Test takers are expected to respond in a similar way so that their performance on standardized tests can be compared to their grade-level peers. Standardized tests are supposed to be graded using a “standard” or consistent method of scoring. Proponents feel this type of testing ensures that teachers and schools are accountable to parents and students. Opponents feel that excessive testing forces educators to “teach to the tests” instead of encouraging students to think critically and to be innovative. Regardless of which side of the argument one falls on, standardized tests are used to determine the fates of students across the country.

It is important to note that not everyone who scores standardized tests has teaching experience. In light of that, it is feasible that some individuals hired to score tests would adopt a systematic method. Essay answers that stick to what is known as “formula writing” are likely to receive higher scores. According to the article “How Standardized Tests Are Scored (Hint: Humans Are Involved)” by Claudio Sanchez, test scorers refer to “anchor papers” to determine the scores for some written responses. Though “teaching to the test” is frowned upon, teachers and guardians can increase the chances of test takers’ success by offering some basic test taking guidelines. With that in mind, there are several helpful strategies that test takers can use to improve their test performance.

Prior to taking any standardized test, one should be familiar with the meanings of as many prefixes, suffixes, and root words as possible. Knowing how to complete analogy questions is also important.

Test takers should be instructed to do the following to answer true or false questions successfully.

When selecting true as an answer, make sure that the information is completely true. If any part of the information is false that cancels out the other part of the information.

Test takers should be instructed to do the following to answer multiple choice questions successfully.

If no points are deducted for guessing, do not leave any questions blank. (Some tests deduct points for wrong answers. Students should find out in advance if points are deducted for wrong answers.)

Read through the questions and all of the answer choices before selecting a response.

Determine what the question is asking.  Eliminate any answer choices that are obviously incorrect.  There may be choices that look like the correct answer, but do not actually answer the question.

Identify key words in the question that might signal the best answer choice.

Draw a picture if necessary. If an image or picture is provided, consider adding labels to it to help determine the correct answer to the question.

Work math problems out only as much as necessary to find the answer to the question that is asked.

After choosing an answer, reread the question to make sure the best answer has been selected.

Fill in answer ovals completely for gridded response questions, making sure to stay inside of the oval!

Test takers should be instructed to do the following to answer essay questions successfully.

Stay focused on the topic and answer questions completely.

Answer all essay questions in complete sentences.

Write in paragraph form, remembering to indent each new paragraph.

Each paragraph should contain 3 to 5 sentences for short essay questions, and 5 to 10 sentences for long essay questions.

Vary sentence length and structure; try not to begin sentences with the same word or words.

Use facts and information taken from reading passages to answer questions; refer back to the reading passage to stay focused.

Underline important information in reading passages to make it easier to go back to them when answering questions.

Proofread. (Proofreading sentences backwards makes finding spelling mistakes and punctuation errors easier because it forces test takers to focus on individual words instead of automatically “seeing” what he or she intended to write.)

The key to successful test taking is being well prepared. Test takers should try to know as much as possible about a test before taking it. Taking advantage of practice tests is always a smart idea. Students should ask teachers and guidance counselors for any test preparation materials that might be available at school, online, or elsewhere.


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