Wondering how to prepare ESL students for standardized testing? The answer doesn't have to be complicated.
Have you been wondering how to prepare ESL students for standardized testing? It’s a tough one, right? I’m sure you’ve been there before– the day that your students are given a standardized state test that takes hours, if not the entire day. Your students are nervous, frustrated, anxious, and stressed…and so are you! You pass out the computers, log everyone on, and start the endless circles around the classroom, counting ceiling tiles and making a mental to-do list.
Then, you spot one of your English Language Learners. Maybe they’re crying, maybe they have their head down on the desk, or maybe they’ve already hit “submit” just a few minutes into the test. Your heart breaks. This test is for students who are at grade level….in English. Your poor newcomer didn’t have a chance. Still, every year, you have to pass out the test to students who might not even understand the directions, refuse to help them, and keep them quiet.
Why are we even testing ESL students with standardized tests? Well, I have a lot to say about that. I also know that I’m not in a position to force the change I want to see, so my goal remains to help the students in front of me feel as successful as possible with the cards they’re dealt. It’s not what I love to do with my time in the classroom, but it’s worth it!
Here’s how to prepare ESL students for standardized testing.
1) Start telling your students about the state test early.
We know that students with trauma, such as many of our ESL students, don’t do well with surprises. We also know that English Language Learners need to hear information multiple times to truly process what is being said! What does that mean? Start talking about state testing early.
Let your students know the dates of the test, and what those days might look like. Give the facts, but speak calmly and act normal, as if you were telling them when to turn in their homework. Do what you can to make ESL state testing feel like just another thing to look for on the calendar. Getting overly excited, or making the day feel overly important, will just stress your students out!
2) Practice Question Types.
For those of us who teach Pre-Emergent, Emergent, and even Basic English Language Learners, it’s generally obvious that the state standardized tests are not going to be an accurate showing of our students’ levels and abilities. It may be taboo to say, but I know that no matter how much I prepare my newcomer who arrived in January, there’s just no way that she’s going to reach grade level on the 5th-grade standardized English test in April. That’s why I like to focus on practice questions with the goal of helping my students feel confident, rather than helping them “pass” the test.
We talk about question types that we might see on the test. We talk about finding the important question words and trying to match words in the answers to the question. We talk about looking back in the text for important words. We talk about all the testing tips and tricks that come more naturally to students in their native language. We talk about structures we can use for essay questions, and sentence frames they can practice. Again, we’re not doing this to “get a high score.” We’re doing this to help students feel confident enough to give the test a fair shake.
3) Prepare them for Standardized Testing by Providing Some Motivation
How this one looks for you depends a lot on the students in your classroom, and this might have to be on a student-by-student basis.
For some of my students, it helped to just provide pure encouragement. “You have worked so hard this year! This test can show how much you’ve learned. You must be so proud of how much you learned this year. Remember at the beginning of the year when you didn’t know how to say “Hello?” Now we can have this conversation! Great job!”
A lot of my students thrived with a chip on their shoulders, ready to prove something to the world. It’s important to know the kids in your room before you go this route, but for the kids in my Title 1 school, who had been through lockdown after lockdown and regularly came in with stories of rough encounters with the police, administrators, landlords, you name it–this was the way to go.
“Did you know that the people who wrote this test don’t even expect you to try? They write these test questions to trick kids who aren’t paying attention on purpose. No one outside this classroom expects you to score very high. They don’t think you can do it. They don’t even think you’ll try. They think you’ll just see the test, decide it’s too hard, and click submit without answering a single question. They’re ready to judge me on that, and they’re ready to judge you on that. But we– we know you’re better than that. We know you’re going to try so hard. We know that you’re going to show them you’ve learned so much this year! We know that you’re going to show them that you speak more than one language, which means your brain is smarter than they ever guessed!”
Don’t be afraid to tell your students they have something to prove. They know how the world sees them, and you know how incredibly talented and capable they are. Give them the encouragement to go out and make a statement! You might be pleasantly surprised.
Check with your school and see if you’re allowed to cover up the material on your walls with posters created by your students instead of just plain paper. If so, learn a few encouraging phrases in class and have students use them to create their own encouraging posters. Hang them around the classroom to provide a bit of cheer and motivation on test days.
4) Don’t Place Too Much Importance on the Test
Want to know the fastest way to cause your students to shut down on testing day? Make the test sound too important.
I know that many, many districts around the country judge teachers on standardized testing. Two of mine did, too. I know that it is so stressful to look out at your students on testing day and not know if they’re taking it seriously enough. I know the pain that comes from being judged by a grade-level test when your middle schoolers are reading English at a Pre-K level.
If I could wave a magic wand and change the US education system, standardized testing would be the first thing to go. Since I don’t have that power, though, I’ll just give you a reminder:
You are a better teacher than a test could ever show. Your students are making more progress than a test could ever show. You know this, and I know this. Don’t feed into the system by caring so much about a standardized test. The test only defines you if you let it.
Easier said than done, I know. Take a moment when you feel yourself getting riled up by all the testing talk, and think about the students in front of you. Remember everything that they’ve been through to end up in your classroom, and how much they’ve grown this year. Ask yourself if a test could ever show off what they’ve learned in that time. No, right? Then let it all go. Think of it as your opportunity to show a little resistance to the system. Don’t let it get to you. Don’t give it importance.
Tell your students, “This is something we have to do. It takes ___ days, and then we’ll be done. I can’t wait for us to get back to learning ______.” Leave it at that.
5) Something to Remember when Testing ESL Students: Your Preparation Might Not Be Enough, and That’s OK!
If your classes are anything like mine, your kids have seen some things. They’re coming to you with lived experiences that we can’t even imagine. I’ve had kids whose schools were attacked during their grade-level testing, kids who have been inside schools that were bombed, and kids who never had the chance to go to school before they came to the U.S. Teaching ESL students comes with so many unseen challenges, and stressful environments, like testing, can make those challenges come bubbling up to the surface.
For some students, the required silence might be too much. For others, looking at a screen, or not being able to move will be too much. Or, maybe you’ll get lucky like me, and you’ll have a picture of the U.S. Military in a test question that sends half your class spiraling.
My point is, you can do everything under the sun to prepare your students, and you’ll still probably hit a snag. That’s ok! Know that it’s not your fault. Do what you can to support your students within the rules of the test, and then give yourself a break. Testing is a tough situation; sometimes, you just have to put your head down and get through it. Give yourself permission to eat your favorite ice cream for dinner or binge your favorite show instead of cleaning the house. You deserve to indulge a little during testing!
Preparing ESL students for state testing is one of the most frustrating things we have to do as teachers. It’s unfair, it’s stressful, and it feels like a waste of time. It’s also one of the necessary evils of teaching, so sometimes we just have to be ready to do what we can do and then move on!
Looking for some support when you go back to your regularly scheduled teaching? Check out this free guide for running a stress-free ESL classroom!
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