Dear Online Standardized Test: We’ll Be Ready for You!

Do you believe your students are ready for the upcoming round of state standardized testing with either the SBAC or PARCC (or some variation of them)?  Though I haven’t yet taught all the common core standards as of right now, I believe that by the end of April, my students will be prepared to tackle the California version of the Smarter Balance Assessment.  In the past, I’ve given some tips and suggestions for getting ready for these assessments.  Since this will be my fourth year administering the SBAC to my students, I thought I’d update those tips and give some new suggestions!

This past year, my grade level at my school doubled the number of proficient students from the previous years in both ELA and Math.  I think some of that can be attributed to the fact that we were more strategic in preparing the students to take an online test.  How do we prepare our students?   The nuances of taking an online standardized test need to be understood so that students can adapt.  In this post, I hope to give you tips, suggestions and ideas that you can implement right now before the testing window opens up!  Be sure to click on the links to previous blog posts I reference as well as other website links!

Let’s Talk Comfort Level

As a 1:1 classroom, my students are very comfortable with using the technology to work on assignments, projects and even to take an assessment. Why?  Because we’ve been using the Chromebooks since the first month of school!  To get students very comfortable with the technology, they need to be using it daily until the testing window begins.  They need as much practice as possible so they can adapt to reading text on a screen rather than in a book or on a paper.  On screen reading can tire eyes more quickly than if it were in a book.

Think about peripheral technology like trackpads, mice and earbuds or headphones.  Using a mouse is very different than using a trackpad.  Most students take a while to learn to use a mouse.  A mouse also needs more room to move around and may need a pad.  If students are used to using a trackpad, stick with that and don’t use the mice.  If students have to use a trackpad, make sure they know how to properly use a trackpad as many are configured as one and two button mice are.  Earbuds are preferable to headphones.  Headphones can get students sweaty and and hurt their outer ears if left on too long.  Train students to take earbuds out or headphones off if no audio is involved.

Since the beginning of school, my students have been using Google Slides for many projects that I have created as Interactive Digital Notebooks, as well as, practicing math skills in Google Slides with movable objects that represent virtual math manipulatives.

Let’s Talk Ergonomics

As teachers, it’s not like we can order the best, most comfortable chairs for our classroom.  We make do with whatever furniture is given to us.  Most of the time it’s a hard plastic chair or maybe even an old wooden chair.  Sitting on one of those for at least an hour can make one stiff and tired.  It is important to take frequent stretch breaks when feeling tired or stiff.

During testing, allow students to stand up and quietly stretch behind their chair without bothering anyone around.  Model this, practice it and enforce it.  That way, during testing students can monitor themselves if they are getting tired.  I would also recommend every 30 minutes of testing, the entire group stand up and take a brain break for 5 minutes.  On the SBAC, students can leave the test running for 20 minutes before they will be automatically logged off.  It does save their work, but they will NOT be able to go back to previous questions if they are logged out so keep all breaks to less than 20 minutes.

Screen brightness can also be adjusted by the student using the brightness controls.  Everyone has a different tolerance for brightness so they should adjust it to their comfort level.

By the way, yes students do need to learn keyboarding.  But I have concluded after many, many years of trying to teach third graders keyboarding skills, it’s a lot of effort for little pay off. Eight and nine year old hands can barely reach the keys when they place their hands on the home keys.  They do not have sufficient coordination to look away from the keys as they type.  Since the tests are untimed, what does it matter how much time they take to type?  Let them hunt and peck for now, and eventually they will learn the keyboard to become real typists.

However, do teach them the keyboard shortcuts for copy, paste, etc.!  Here’s a FREEBIE you can use with your students to remind them of the keyboard shortcuts.

Let’s Talk Test Format

With the advent of online testing, new ways of asking questions in unfamiliar formats can throw students off completely.  Usually on paper and pencil tests, students have questions that are either multiple choice, true or false, fill in blanks, matching or short or long written responses.  Online tests are the same, but the way in which they are presented through drop down menus, dragging objects on the screen, selecting certain tools for math symbols, can really confuse students if they’ve never practiced these types of questions on a computer before.

We also want students to understand that test taking strategies that they used on paper and pencil tests can transfer to online tests.  On paper, students can use process of elimination to cross out incorrect answers on a multiple choice question.  On a computer, they would use the strike-through tool to cross out incorrect answers.  Process of elimination is a cross over strategy!

Drop-down menus for choosing an answer can sometimes be confusing to students.  Now, they’ve probably encountered these types of menus before, but I’ve noticed something rather curious. Sometimes in a drop down menu, not all answers are displayed at once. It may require the user to scroll within the drop down menu to see more choices.  Students sometimes don’t notice this and only choose answers from what is displayed!  Teach students to notice if the menu has a scroll feature.

Test that are presented in a booklet, usually have the passage first with the questions following below it or on the facing page.  On an online test, students are presented with a split screen.  Teach them how to adjust the split screen to see the entire text or to focus on the questions.   If you want to practice working with split screens, there are some nifty add-on extensions for Chrome.  One is Split Screen, but it doesn’t always work with every page.  I believe a better one is Tab Resize which essentially let’s you have two or more tabs open simultaneously next to each other as separate screens.

It is not technically a split screen, but it has the same effect.  For example, I can upload a PDF with a passage to Google Classroom.  On one screen the students can open the PDF with Kami so they can highlight and annotate. On the other screen, students can open a Google Form that I have prepared with questions regarding the passage.

With Google Forms, I can simulate some of the test format with drop down menus, check boxes for multiple choice questions with more than one response, fill in tables or even short responses.  In fact, my grade level is now going to start giving more and more of our classroom assessments using Google Forms, Google Slides or web based exams such as on  With the assessment window now just 2 months away, now is the time to begin switching to using online assessment instruments, which we are doing.

Let’s Talk Note-taking

Most of the passages that students will have to deal with are written fiction or non-fiction passages presented on screen for them to read.  They can use test tools like the highlighter to highlight parts for use later on with answering questions.  On the SBAC, there is also a NOTEPAD tool for students to take notes on questions.

But, they will also have to learn to take notes from audio or video sources as well!  A student might have to listen to an audio presentation and use it to answer a multitude of questions.  If it were a text passage, it would be easier for the student to go back to the text and find answers.

But with an audio or video passage, that task becomes much harder.  Their first instinct is to just listen to the audio like was music on the radio or watch a video as if they were watching TV at home.  Instead, you have to teach them to recognize an audio or video source as just another passage that must be used to answer questions.  But first, students need to know how to use the controls to play, advance, rewind and stop audio or video.  Teach them to use the time index as well so they can reference sections if they need to go back and hear something over again.

Since the beginning of school, my students have used video as a learning tool.  I usually embed links to videos in the Interactive Digital Notebook.  I’ve taught my students how to take video notes so that they can use the notes to answer questions or compose a paragraph to summarize the video.  My school also subscribes to the Scholastic News and with the digital version, there are related videos that you can use to practice this skill.  Also, with the Scholastic News, there’s an option for the text to be read aloud.  I use that too, to simulate an audio passage for them to take notes.

Another tool which is an excellent way to have students practice with video or audio, is  I recently discovered this site and even blogged about it HERE recently.  Essentially, pick a video and add questions for students to answer at specified points along the video!  Very easy to set up and use.

Let’s Talk About Organizing Thoughts

Reading is understanding or comprehending.  Our mind wants to make sense of what we read and organize it in a way that helps us understand and remember.  I teach my students to make very simple graphic organizers that they can use to answer questions about a text or to use as a prewriting tool for writing tasks.

For writing a narrative, simple boxes with arrows to show sequence is the way to go.  The first box is used as the first paragraph to introduce setting, characters and problem.  The next three boxes are for three key events that occurred because the character acted in a certain way (character traits).  This becomes the second paragraph.  The last box is the resolution or ending of the story and is the last paragraph.

For writing an informative piece, I teach my students to use the house metaphor to state your main idea/topic sentence as the roof and pillars that show supporting details while the floor is the concluding sentence.

For an opinion, the students just remember the acronym OREO.  O is for stating your opinion on the topic.  R is a reason that supports your opinion.  E is for evidence to illustrate or explain your reason.  Students must give at least three reasons with supporting evidence.  Finally, the last O is for restating your opinion.  I actually tried this strategy with an online organizer.  You can see it here!

For short constructed responses, my students have learned and been using the RACE strategy since the beginning of the school year.  R is for restating the question.  A is for answering the question by making an inference or drawing a conclusion.  C is for citing evidence from the passage, video or audio that supports your answer. E is for further explaining or giving an example of the evidence.  By following this strategy, students can give well developed constructed responses.  If you look at the SBAC Scoring Guide, you will see that this strategy does help students with getting a better score.

Let’s Talk Motivation and Test Submission

In my past experiences with administering the SBAC, it has usually taken two days for the ELA test, two days for the ELA Performance Task, two days for the Math test and two days for the Math Performance Task.  This is working about one and a half hours a day on each part.  These are just averages.  Some kids will need more time.  So how do we keep them motivated to do their best?

How about a cheer!  How about motivating posters around your school!  How about a ClassDojo message to parents to encourage their children to do their best each day of testing!  How about a class reward of free play during the day for great effort and concentration!  How about high fives! How about handing out Brag Tags after a testing session to reward effort and concentration!  Every class is different, so you will have to find what is motivating to your students.

On the SBAC, before a child can submit a test, they are asked to review any flagged questions as well as ALL the questions before submitting.  If they have paused the test along the way, they will not be able to review the previous session questions.  It can be overwhelming and discouraging to have to review all answers AGAIN, after concentrating so hard to take the test.  So I suggest we train our students to take a break before reviewing. Then have them only review a few at a time, take another break and continue.  Now that can vary depending on the student.  Some can handle reviewing all of them, while others may need encouragement to not just blow it off!

What kinds of test preparation do you do for online state testing?  Please share below in the comments!


As always, I welcome your thoughts and suggestions!