On the Road: 11 Surefire Strategies to Motivate Students for State Tests & A Critique of the Testing Machine

At the school where I used to teach, preparation for our state’s high-stakes test, the TCAP, was an all hands on deck five-week bootcamp like adventure. Our entire school ascribed to “What’s Your Why?” as the central question we used to motivate students. Every teacher had an individualized buy-in plan that included rewards, public/private data trackers for students, and frequent communication with parents. Every student was asked on a daily basis what’s your why, and the answer to this question was related back to TCAP success. Screen Shot 2015-05-02 at 1.23.40 PM

Last year, my students were voraciously reading Divergent, which became a central theme in my motivational strategy. I gave each student a tracker where they measured their weekly progress on mixed-skill quizzes. I called parents every Friday afternoon when a student worked hard all week and performed on a mixed-skill quiz. I integrated the importance of writing in every field and every part of life throughout my lessons. I used data from our Mock TCAP to unit plan, and I used mastery from the Mixed Skill Quizzes to plan reteaches the following week. I wrote lessons that had question stems aligned to the state test and distractors designed based on what the sample questions included.

cogs-in-a-machineI used the same strategy this year. TCAP Prep time is the toughest part of the year for students and teachers. It is a 6-week, non-stop race. Getting students invested in their performance on the test is crucial, as are aligned questions, and annotation and elimination strategies dominate an ELA state test that relies on better/best answer choices. This year, my test preparation machine began to feel seamless; I had the necessary component parts to make all the cogs and wheels turn.

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1. A Theme for Students that Extends Beyond the Test and Serves as Constant Motivation

My students are over tested; it isn’t unusual for them to have 3-4 tests in a day. They take STARs reading and math benchmark tests 3 times a year, the Social Studies Field Test, the Writing TCAP, the 3 high-stakes TCAP tests, the NAEP, and every test any teacher administers. They know intrinsically that TCAP matters, but they also have a hard time articulating why. Our school has made it 15% of their second semester grade, and my students do care about their grades. Yet, my 7th graders have already taken TCAP for five years, and it can easily devolve into feeling like another jaunt in brute-force, Kaplan-esque test preparation. A pithy message that carries greater weight can go a long way with your students.

This theme, or short message, can also drive the look of the instructional materials and anchor charts used throughout test-prep. This year, I settled on On the Road as the driving message/ theme of my TCAP preparation unit. Metaphorically, every one of my students is on a long road towards meeting his/her big goals. These goals ranged from going to college to owning a farm to having a family. Then, I said to students that there will always be roadblocks, or challenges, on the way down the road towards the big goal. On the first day back from Spring Break, I introduced the unit by showing students What’s Stopping you from Achieving your Goals, which is a short video from Soul Pancake (same people who introduced Kid President).  

Every student wrote down on a notecard where they were on the road to, which I turned into a garland for each of my classes. This was a public reminder of where students were on the road to, and I could easily turn to these goals during a challenging day, or if a student became discouraged.


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Students also brainstormed some of the roadblocks, or challenges, they have encounter on the way to their goal on the tracker I gave them after they took the Mock TCAP.

Students kept this tracker in their TCAP folder, and it was a constant reminder of where they were headed down the road and the roadblocks they may encounter on the way there.

Developing a theme, and a common vernacular around the theme, is crucial in introducing a state test-preparation unit that may be perceived of as boring or challenging by students.

2. Give a practice, or MOCK, test BEFORE you start your reteach unit.

A theme needs to be developed before the unit starts, but you can’t start a test-prep unit until you have definitive proof of what your students do and don’t know. To assess student strengths of deficits in knowledge, a teacher could reflect back on what students struggled with during the year, look at data from old assessment/ assignments, or choose to re-teach the standards you deem most important. There are major flaws in all of these choices. Teacher reflection is essential, but cannot be used to make long-term instructional decisions; instead, it should occur on a daily basis after a lesson. Data from assessments over the course of the year isn’t helpful because middle school students don’t retain the type of nuanced information that appears on a state test over long periods of time. Finally, re-teaching only most tested standards is generally an effective strategy, but in this scenario, there is no analysis of what students already know and is a poor use of instructional time.

Screen Shot 2015-05-03 at 12.33.22 PMInstead, give a practice test that has at least one question for every standard that appears on the test. For standards you believe will need a reteach or are power standards, include more than 1 question.

You can get item samplers and practice tests from your state’s DOE website.

Giving a practice test before you plan or teach any content will ensure you prioritize skills, respond to what students do/don’t know, and don’t waste any of the valuable instructional time leading up to the test.

3. Analyze the Practice Test and Test Design, then Unit Plan

Data-driven instruction is spoken often and used infrequently. Using data to drive instruction should happen during a state-prep review; it is critically important in pushing students who are on the bubble into different levels of proficiency.

During TCAP Review, I invested in using Grade Cam, which is an incredible online platform that generates bubble sheets for students (much like Scantron) that can be read on a web cam. Grade Cam also has an exceptional platform to analyze data.

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After I give a Mock TCAP, I use a mastery tracker I created using Excel to analyze the data. First, I pull student mastery for each class for every standard and insert this information in my mastery tracker. Once I’ve pulled all the data from the test, I can start making my unit plan.

I start my unit plan by returning to the test design. I look to see which strands are most heavily tested and begin looking at mastery for those standards. For the most tested strands, I plan a whole class reteach for any standard I haven’t taught or that is lower than 80% mastery. If one of these standards is above 80%, I will include it as a Do Now review.

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For the lesser tested standards, I am far more discerning in laying out my unit plan. I look at the number of instruction days I have before the test, and I start plugging standards in. I start by focusing on the lowest mastered standards and place these as whole class reteaches first. As the calendar gets full, and I still have standards to reteach, you have to decide where you can move mastery most easily. For example, I know that choosing the most focused research topic is extremely challenging for students and is not a standard where I’m going to make a big dent on mastery. However, appositives are a skill most students can master because there is clearly a correct or incorrect answer.

If your classes are leveled, you also will want to make changes for the highest and lowest cohorts. Test prep can be especially challenging for gifted students who are easily bored. Instead of reteaching standards they have mastered, focus on their deficits and spend more time on the standards where you can bump these kids into Advanced. With your lowest class, think about which standards you are confident these students can master that are heavily tested (power standards), and focus in on these.

Using the test design, mastery per standard on the Mock TCAP, and strategy around which standards need which type of reteach will ensure your unit plan is designed to maximize student growth.

4. Create incentive systems for student growth. 

Students become incredibly invested in competitions within and amongst classes. Use this to make test preparation more motivating and exciting for students.

Daily Rewards:

Screen Shot 2015-05-03 at 6.18.38 PMThis year, I had the 100 MPH Club every day during our six-week TCAP preparation unit. You gained membership to the 100 MPH club by scoring a 100% on daily homework. I posted the names of the 100 MPH winners on my board daily. Winners earned a coveted piece of candy and the glory of having their name on the board.

I also set up a Grade Cam grading station at the front of my room on an old laptop, so students could scan their homework before class and see what score they earned.

Students instantly became invested in the system, so much so that students frequently came to my class during our Focus block to scan their homework and make corrections to missed questions before class. It is in the moments when students are excited about learning that you can see how systems and motivation make a huge impact in student outcomes.

Inter-Class Rewards:

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Amongst classes, I had the Blasting Zone Growth Award. I measured growth for each class from the Mock TCAP to the weekly mixed skill quiz. I called this the Blasting Zone Award to fit with the road theme.

Each Friday after I graded the quizzes, I posted the number of point growth for each class on a board at the back of my room.

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On Monday, the winning class received a baked treat. I was hugely and pleasantly surprised by how excited students were for cupcakes or cinnamon rolls. The Blasting Zone Award also served as an excellent way to chat with a class that was struggling to stay motivated or needed an extra push to power through the rest of the week.

I think it’s important to use growth scores in lieu of performance scores if you have leveled classes because performance levels offer unfair advantages in leveled classes for obvious reasons.

5. Find a creative way to help students understand the test and it’s design. 

The back wall in my room featured all the standards on TCAP. The traffic light metaphor helped students understand what they’d see most frequently on TCAP.

It is critically important on a test like TCAP that students understand what the test looks like, and more importantly, the frequency with with they will see questions from each strand of the test.

TCAP has 7 strands that account anywhere from 8%-26% of the test. As a teacher, it was very important to me that my students understand how what we are learning plays into the test, and they feel excited about strategizing how to increase their scores most easily.

This is an area I’ve struggled with in the past; this year, I wanted to ensure my students understood how important each standard was on the test, and I wanted to reference this idea every day.

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To stay aligned to the on the road theme, I chose the analogy of a traffic light. Green standards meant go at full speed ahead to learn them, yellow meant we needed to slow down a little so we wouldn’t spend as much time on them, and red stopped us from spending a lot of time on the least tested standards.

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On my daily lessons, I included a box with the SWBAT statements.

Each day, I started class by reading the SWBAT statements and having students determine if they were green, yellow, or red by finding them on the anchor charts at the side of my room.

We’d then label the color of each standard on our packet.

After we debriefed the test last week, a number of students recalled that knowing which standards they’d see the most of on the test was helpful for them.

6. Frequently talk to students about their growth goals, & what they’re on the road to.

Having all of the systems to set students up to stay motivated during test prep is only one half of the battle. Knowing what performance level you believe they can get to is crucial and having these conversations privately during class should be a daily practice.

In addition to asking students about what they want to achieve on the test, have frequent conversations about  and references to their goals down the road. It’s essential to have students make the connection that the test will help them get closer to their goal.

7. Develop expectations around annotating. 

On a multiple-choice test, an annotation strategy is essential to preclude students from making careless errors. They both need to know how to answer every type of question and how to decide what strategies to use when the questions are posed in a mixed-practice format.

8. Have a template for your lessons, elements of consistency for students, and vary the structure of the lessons.

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Having a template will simplify your life when planning. My lessons include a box for SWBT statements, an agenda with student-friendly language for the day, an inspiring quote, the lesson chunked into different sections (I call them chapters), and an easy way to grade (I use Grade Cam0).

This lesson template makes it easy for students to easily find materials in their binders, locate information quickly, and understand that each of the lessons fit together in a longer sequence.

Conversely, it is also important to change up the structure of your lessons to continue surprising students and keep them engaged.


My students started to lag (understandably) in motivation about two-weeks into the unit. At this point, I started introducing more games like Scoot, activities like the creation of literary device books, and surprise days when we worked outside. These changes in the pace and structure of class kept students on their feet and ready to engage with the material.

9. Focus on knowledge and brain power. 

The assimilation of new knowledge is what a student uses to be successful on the test, but if a student becomes easily nervous of overwhelmed when testing, they won’t ever be able to access the knowledge.

Therefore, I want my students to have strategies in place for when they feel nervous. Before every test/quiz, I led my class through a stretch break and a visualization where we imagined ourselves on the road towards our goal breaking through roadblocks, and ultimately arriving at our destination.

Dozens of students have told me the impact the visualization had on their ability to stay calm.

10. Before the test, use at least one day to motivate.

The day before the test is the most important of all the review days. Mental preparedness comes in knowledge and confidence.

This year, last Thursday was one I kept my mind’s eye on throughout the 6-week review.


One piece of motivating students before the test is showing them you care about each and every one of them. In the past, I’ve written students notes about what I think makes them special and in what ways they contribute to their class and school community. This year, I decided to make a bookmark for every student featuring their name on the front, a quote that reminded me of them in some way, and a note on the back that explained why I was proud of them, what they brought to the school community, and what they needed to remember to do on the test (based on what I knew they struggled with most). I also laminated each of the bookmarks for longevity. The bookmark creation was a month-long project for me, but one I knew would have a big impact on students.


The night before, I created a road in my class where I placed the bookmarks for each class, so they could see each others’ quotes.

I started class with a quick 15-minute review of test-taking strategies and what they needed to do the night before and morning of the test.

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Then, I started the motivational component of class by telling a story about myself. I began by showing my 7th grade yearbook photo. I explained where I wanted to be when I was in 7th grade, some of the roadblocks I faced on the way there, and what it was like when I finally met an iteration of my goal. It was important that my students understood parts of my life, so they would feel comfortable sharing their own.

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Afterwards, I showed a clip of cyclists heading through difficult terrain in Spain and a clip from The Pursuit of Happiness when Eric Gardner receives his job offer. I had students pay attention to certain components of the clips, but I didn’t detail why we were watching them.

Afterwards, while students completed a journal, I handed out the bookmarks I’d written for each of them. In looks of shock, surprise, and ultimately happiness as each student read his/her letter, I knew they’d made a positive impact. It wasn’t until the next morning when I received countless parent emails that I came to recognize what a meaningful gesture it was for my students.

It was also an emotional day for me, one that felt like the culminating moment of the year when I got to step back and appreciate each of my students and his/her accomplishments.

Make the last day before a state test a special one that makes students feel good, confident, and inspired to accomplish their goals. And do it in a way that is telling of who you are as a teacher.

11. Gain support at home & communicate frequently with parents.  

Screen Shot 2015-05-03 at 6.17.47 PMI find the weeks leading up to state tests the most stressful of the year. i work significantly harder during these weeks than every other week of the year. This is due to my desire to refine lessons and ensure they align exactly to the test. It’s also due to the extra time I put into data analysis, and subsequently, pulling out extra groups of students who are on the bubble of a performance level.

During these weeks, students with exemplary work ethic and character also get to shine. This year, I was incredibly proud of dozens of students who got extra gritty by coming to seek additional help from me, who participated relentlessly when they felt bored or confused, and those who performed on mixed skill quizzes by studying more than they had before.

Each Friday after grading these quizzes, I’d go through all my grades to notice any students who’d grown significantly or scored unusually high. I aimed for a list of 15-20 students. I sent an email to his/ her parent expressing how proud I was of the progress he/she made and indicated that I noticed the extra effort he/she was putting in.

I also sent home a parent email every couple weeks updating them on what we were working on in class and what they could do to help set their student up for success at home.

First, I think it’s important to let parents know that test-prep month is going to be more challenging that lots of other units and why this is the case. Then, it’s important to let parents know their children are excelling, even when the work is difficult.

School is a triangle of student, family, and teacher. Engaging and motivating all parts of this triangle is essential to setting students up for long-term success.

In Conclusion

At the end of the day, I don’t believe standards-based, multiple-choice tests are an effective way to measure student progress on a nationalized level. For a teacher whose job relies on evaluation and value added scores from these tests, they must be critical foci in our classrooms. For principals who face immense pressure to close achievement gaps and widen student growth, pressure and emphasis is placed on teachers to devote large swaths of instructional time to test preparation. For superintendents vying for funding and laud from the state, state tests like TCAP are critical data points to show the efficacy of a district.

Then, these tests begin mattering to people who are so far removed from a classroom that they don’t understand the day to day instructional implications of such tests. For State Departments of Education, these tests are the determination of what students, schools, and most importantly, teachers are effective and which are not. TCAP is an easy data point. Yet, it’s not an accurate measure of progress.

To paint a clearer picture of what I’m hoping to illustrate, take a look at this question:

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This question comes directly from an Item Sampler provided by the state. Formulate your answer now.

The correct answer is J.

In the last two years, I have not been able to find any rationale for explaining such a question to my students.

The standard for this question asks students to re-order notecards for a speech. In theory, this is a skill that would serve students well. In fact, the students in my classroom completed a speech project where they chose a charity, explained why the social issue mattered most, and argued why the charity best solved the problem. They used real-life-notecards during their speeches; yet, none of them could answer the question posed above.

This is the type of question that leads to Kaplan-esque boot camps that eat away at the days when we can read, write, and talk about books, poems, and essays. This is the type of question that leads to a post of this very nature.

Yes, this was the last year of TCAP for Tennessee. Yes, we have the TN Ready assessment that is an elusive mixture of TCAP and Common Core standards.

My concern is how to ensure the authentic literary tasks we want our students to achieve don’t devolve into this nonsensical exercise that leaves a teacher few options beyond “teaching to the test.”

If this is the measure for success, this is what teachers will do. The little information about TN Ready asserts over and over again that teachers will be involved in the test design process, but there is not indication of to what extent they have power in the decision-making process.

Perhaps the issue isn’t the test itself, but the fact that this type of test is how we measure success. I could count on one hand the number of standards on the TCAP that I believe account for meaningful, real-world knowledge of literature.

The standards movement was born out the need for accountability. Now, accountability, TVAAS scores, and being the best on a 70-question multiple-choice test featuring questions like the one above is what we’ve held ourselves accountable to.

At what point will we realize the testing machine has done nothing but appease the national sentiment that accountability in schools in the way to reform education and get my students ready for a fruitful career. Based on the road we’re headed down, constructing a post of this very nature would be a pipe dream.

I can only hope that tests like TN Ready are setting a new precedent for what education in Tennessee looks like.

One on many sunrises and sunsets seen during TCAP Review month. On the road once again.

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