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Standardized Test and Strategies to Pass It

Standardized tests are going to be a part of almost everyone’s life. For school, college, graduate school, professional licensure, and employment applications, the little round boxes and the number two pencils or the online equivalent are all around us. These tests have to be designed to elicit from as wide a variety of people as possible a correct response. They also have to be designed to distinguish folks who are just guessing wildly from those who are following a logical train of thought. It makes sense to take advantage of any possible aids to thinking when facing these tests. We will move on to some other strategies for coping with these tests.

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Reading the questions ahead of starting to read any text or do any calculation or picking an answer from among several visual choices allows you to spot significant information in the material. You can underline important words or facts, or circle key images if allowed, or at least make a mental note of where and what they are.

When facing a math problem, reading the instructions first saves a huge amount of time. Many experienced test takers all have similar horror stories. They speak of having performed a long and laborious calculation, only to find, upon finally reading the instructions carefully, that something else was called for. It could have been an estimation, a comment on the set-up of the problem, a definition of the parts or symbols in the problem, e.g., divisor/dividend, power/logarithm, or some other non-calculation issue. The take-away here is to READ the instructions FIRST.

You should read the test all the way through, as far ahead as you are allowed by the test administrator, to see what is asked for. This may help you allocate your time more sensibly. It may alert you to be recalling that dim and distant memory of a specific type of calculation, or part of speech, or term for a particular type of figurative language, or pattern of numbers.

Test tutors tell students that there are four major types of questions to look for, and several others that can appear on tests. They include the following:

  • Completion/prediction
  • Drawing Inferences/drawing conclusions
  • Mustering facts/details
  • Identifying the main idea/author’s purpose

Other types of questions that may show up ask the student to identify the tone or mood of the piece. Sometimes a question will ask about figurative language. Finally, some questions require that the student be able to pick the correct description of the structure of the story and say how the author made their point. Between these types of questions, this exhausts most of what is asked on the standardized tests.

As you can see, if a student has no practice in thinking about reading this way, or in answering complex mathematical questions, they are going to be in trouble. Sadly, this is the kind of teaching that requires time and order in the classroom, as well as students who value reading, to begin with.

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For students who want to improve their response to such challenges, each testing company issues practice books. These can be very helpful. To get the most from them, you need to commit to practicing, and do so in as realistic a fashion as possible.

This means asking someone to time you. Needing to check the time constant is a distraction. If you have a smartphone or other device that can give you a five minute and three-minute warning, great. Otherwise, ask a friend to administer the test for you. Choose a very quiet place, a place with minimal visual stimulation or distractions, and one where you will not be interrupted. Set yourself up as though in a testing center, with only your writing implements and any permitted calculator.

Commit to completing the test without a bathroom break. You need to make the experience as close to the real thing as you can.

Go through the test in the correct time frame, and put down your pencil the instant that time is called.

Use the technique of reading ahead. Do this for both reading and math questions and sections.

Remember that one of the answers is right in each question. Use the process of elimination to whittle down the choices. Then use what you know from outside the test as well as the content of the problem to determine the correct choice. Use estimation to double-check plausibility. Sound out the answer as a complete sentence to hear whether it is plausible. This way you will pick up on dumb stuff that can trip you up.

Here is an example. The question might ask which term is not associated with ‘Marxism’ and offer the following choices: ‘classical liberalism’, ‘proletariat’, ‘dialectic’, and ‘bourgeois”. The answer would be liberal because Marxism was a critique of what was termed liberalism in the 18th and 19th centuries. However, the term has taken on a meaning that is almost the opposite of the original meaning. If you did not pick up on the word ‘not’ in the question, you would be tripped up, and perhaps dither or choose another wrong answer. Reading ahead would help to avert this sort of problem.

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If you finish a section ahead of time, go back and check all your work carefully. You should have placed a tick mark next to anything that confused you.

While nothing replaces a lifetime of good reading and practice at math and critical thinking, some assiduous practice under realistic conditions will help to reduce panic and avoidable errors.

Good luck!

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