Preparing for “THE Test”

What would be the best way to “power dose” in math in preparation for the end of the year test?
How do we help students handle text heavy problems?


Administrators, Coaches, and 3rd Grade Team
Ranson Elementary
Ranson, WV

I actually got to meet with this team. Below reflects some of our discussions, plans, classroom trials, and later thoughts.


A coverage (cover all of the standards) and recall approach (I knew it as “cramming” for the test) has limited success. We can’t know the exact way in which questions will be posed. If a student sees something that is unfamiliar or if they can’t recall a fact or procedure, they are likely to skip the problem or simply guess.

With that in mind, I would focus on:

  • making everything a problem solving experience,
  • helping students believe that everything in math should make sense,
  • developing students’ comfort with approaching unfamiliar tasks, and
  • building stamina and independence when problem solving.

Any mathematics topics that we haven’t “covered” yet would be handled through text rich problems. Each of the above would be goals throughout the year, not just for test preparation.

In planning for instruction:


          1. Build Independence: Structure lesson set-up, problems, team work, etc. so that students have to make sense of the tasks In the past, one technique I commonly used was to read the problem aloud together and then discuss strategies for solving the problem. Then I had an AHA moment. On the test we aren’t able to read the problem together or discuss strategies. It’s as if we pull the rug out from under them. Now I consider ways to build independence throughout the year.
        1. Word Problems
          • First give story problems without a question. Students read the problem independently and illustrate. Have students share their drawings. Invite peers to determine if the picture matches the story and offer suggestions for improvement. Criteria for a good illustration, “Could someone tell the same story or a similar story using the illustration.”
          • Using a problem they’ve illustrated ask, “What questions could you answer?” Use a think-pair-share approach to share and debrief.
          • Have students answer and defend their solutions to problem questions. Include written defenses in paragraph form.
          • Sequence word problems so the text gets progressively longer.
      1. Handling the Unfamiliar: Give problems related to topics not yet covered. Encourage students to reason through the problem.

Grade 3 Example:

Do students need to have fluency in measuring to fractional units to solve the following problem? (Problem modified from a practice test problem.)

Dakota measured the lengths of 6 screws to the nearest quarter inch.

She then represented her findings in the graph below.

(lengths to nearest quarter inch)

Her classmates think that there is a problem with the graph.

A.  Dakota did not title her graph.

B.  There were 6 screws. Dakota left off one of the three-quarter inch screws on her graph.

C.  Dakota had a two inch screw but did not show on the graph.

D.  Dakota did not graph the 1¾ inch screw.


Discussion: The students in the 3rd grade classes had not worked with fractions nor fractional line plots yet. They may be faced with a similar situation on the test. We want them to solve by reasoning about the problem.

  • Show only the graph. Use a think-pair-share approach to have students share everything they can about the graph.
  • Show the pictures of the screws. Have them tell you everything they notice about the pictures and the graph.
  • Finally show the possible answers. Have the students determine the correct answer. Ask them to defend their choice as well as the reasons that the other choices are incorrect.

When shown the graph, students knew:

  • it had something to do with screws because of the title,
  • they measured the screws in inches because of the title,
  • there were 5 screws because of the X’s.

When shown the photos, students added:

  • there were 6 screws,
  • some are less than one inch,
  • 3 are the same length,
  • 2 are the same length.

Even if students are unsure of the measures of the screws, knowing that 3 screws are the same length and are less than an inch they can determine the correct answer.

  1. Don’t forget test-taking skills
    • Have students eliminate possible answers.

Example: In a sample test question, the final question is, “What would be the answer rounded to the nearest hundred?” The choices are 400, 429, 486, and 500. Without knowing the rest of the problem two of the answers can be eliminated.

  • Create a concentration/memory type game using practice test questions. On one card would be the problem. The matching card would contain the answer choices for multiple choice, the table, or the task to be completed. For each turn the player must state why the cards match before taking or why they don’t match before turning them back over.


    1. Connect to video game mindset: We asked students about how they approach video games. Some food for thought… When they play video games they:
      • Always try new things.
      • Take risks.
      • Try to improve their score.
      • Stick with it (Stamina).

File Folder 3How would this work?
Problem Detective–A no-tech video game.

One sentence or one answer choice (clue) has been randomly placed behind each “door.”

The student/player is to uncover each of the clues determining the problem and the answer.


To make the game:

      1. Print a copy of the problem template.      File Folder Template
      1. Place the template on a file folder and using a pin or other File Folder 1pointed tool, make impressions at each vertex.
      2. Connect the dots on 3 sides of the rectangle to outline the doors.
      1. File Folder 2Cut the doors.
      2. Create problem sheets using the problem template.
      3. Students insert a problem sheet into the folder and solve.
File Folder 3

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