How Can Teachers Help Prepare Students for Exams in the 2020-2021 School Year?

Teachers and support staff across the country have come up with creative and engaging lesson plans for remote and socially distant learning. In a year where students have struggled to focus on learning, educators have worked to keep them engaged and reduce their stress. However, as the end of the fall semester approaches and teachers look to the spring, one serious hurdle looms: 2020-2021 exams. 

From December through May, students are likely to face final exams, standardized tests and advanced testing through the SAT and ACT. While many of these were waived last year, more administrators are moving ahead with testing in the months ahead.

Teachers can follow this guide to help their students succeed.  

Adjust Your Exams for the Pandemic Year

Evaluate the exams you gave in previous years and see if they need to be adjusted to the remote learning environment. Is the material still relevant? Do you need to reprioritize what you assess and how?  

Lynn Olson, an independent consultant and senior fellow at FutureEd, created a blueprint for testing for how schools should assess students during the COVID-19 pandemic. This is a strong resource that schools can use with actionable insight about moving forward strategically. 

“Before jumping to test students, educators first need to determine which questions they hope to answer with assessments and how they plan to use that information,” Olson writes. “There are many different types of assessments and no single test is useful for every purpose.”

Before you develop an assessment, work through a rubric to prioritize the most important information and alert students to what they need to focus on. This can guide their studying and make them more confident as they end the exam. 

“In the absence of face-to-face guidance, clear criteria for expectations become more important,” write Pamela Chui Kadakia and Allan A. Bradshaw, instructional specialists at Richland College. “A good rubric makes those expectations explicit and describes what learning looks like.” 

Even if a final exam for the semester is supposed to cover “everything,” you can still provide insight into how students will be graded and what aspects they should focus on. What are the biggest takeaways they need from the class?

You can also identify ways to make the test process less stressful — especially if you have remote students and aren’t sure how confident they are in the material. For example, you can give students plenty of time in which to write the test.

“Unless you are assessing how quickly your students can complete the exam, allow them ample time to complete it,” says Sara Bakken, principal learning designer and assessment at Pearson. “It is important to keep in mind that your students don’t know the knowledge and skills as well as you do, so be sure to cushion each item with more time than you would expect to take to complete the exam yourself.” 

Additionally, avoid using new tools and software systems to administer the exam. Students can easily get distracted or confused by these tools, creating more pressure in an already high-stakes situation.

“Whatever is used for testing should flow naturally from what the students have already encountered in their lessons,” writes Stacey Pusey, an adjunct instructor at Wilmington University. “An assessment should not be the first time students use a piece of technology.” 

preparing for 2020-2021 exams

Develop Assessments That Reduce the Risk of Cheating

While you can develop your assessments with empathy in mind, there’s a difference between creating a fair exam for students and opening the door for cheating and other workarounds. 

In regard to the remote classroom, many educators have struggled to prevent cheating even with protections in place. 

Before the pandemic, the team at ProctorU, a company that providers proctoring services, says it caught people cheating on fewer than one percent out of 340,000 exams it administered through 2020. From April on, the company has proctored 1.3 million exams with a cheating rate above eight percent.

“We can only imagine what the rate of inappropriate testing activity is when no one is watching,” Scott McFarland, CEO of ProctorU, says.

Recode reporter Rebecca Heilweil highlighted the challenges schools face when trying to prevent online cheating. One option considered was Proctorio, an AI service that monitors the movements of students, along with their keystrokes and even facial expressions. However, many students wonder what happens with these recordings, who actually sees them and possible bias in the system itself. 

Of course, even when human online proctors are available, they aren’t infallible. Students can hide notes below their screens or set up second laptops outside the view of the proctor.

As an educator, you can develop tests that limit the ability of students to cheat. You can also make these examinations more meaningful for learners. 

“Students are…less likely to cheat when they are invited to demonstrate learning in ways that are most authentic to them,” Douglas Harrison, vice president and dean of the School of Cybersecurity and Information Technology at the University of Maryland Global Campus, says. 

Even within a traditional exam format, you can add authenticity by replacing multiple-choice questions with short-answer fields, for example, or even set up spoken-word assessments where students explain how they came to a certain answer. This allows you to see what students really know, not what they are able to memorize or look up online. 

“If you are developing critical thinking and inquiry-based activities that frankly require kids to think and apply their learning, you’re not going to have cheating, because you can’t cheat on that,” Michelle Pearson, 2011 Colorado State Teacher of the Year, tells EdWeek. 

Pearson says the basic multiple-choice question format is “not necessarily higher-level thinking that should be in a final assessment.” While you may need to include standardized testing in your assessment at least partially, consider finding more expressive and engaging ways to evaluate students when that option is in your control. 

preparing for 2020-2021 exams

Prepare for Spring Standardized Testing

Alongside the traditional end of semester tests, teachers are also starting to learn whether or not their schools will be administering federal standardized testing in 2021. Standardized testing typically occurs in the spring and is mandated as part of the No Child Left Behind Act. The tests were waived in 2020 as the schools shut down because of the pandemic, and representatives from some states like Michigan and Georgia requested waivers to skip them in Spring 2021. 

However, in September 2020, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said the waivers would be denied and schools were required to test students. While the argument in favor of these tests is that they catch students who are falling behind so administrators can step in and help, some see the high-stakes nature as unfair in a year when so many school systems are doing the best they can.

“Kids are retained based on that test,” Amy Harvey, principal of Northside Elementary School Principal in Panama City, Florida, says. “Our school grade is based on that test…so is it really fair to have all of that happen this school year?”

Even if students are prepared for these tests, there are so many factors and conditions that could affect the scores — seemingly innocent things that change how students test and the results that come from them. 

“Research shows that physical conditions where the testing happens matters,” Nicholas Tampio, professor of political science at Fordham University and author of “Common Core: National Education Standards and the Threat to Democracy,” writes. “If administrators cannot adjust the thermostat in a public school building, for example, it can skew test outcomes.” 

Tampio says he is concerned about inequitable conditions in the homes of students — or in schools with different resources and COVID-19 policies — which might lead to poor test results and further limited resources for educators. 

“[It] doesn’t reflect the realities our schools are facing or the needs of our students,” Robert McCann, executive director at Tri-County Alliance for Public Education in Michigan, says. “The last thing we need to be doing is focusing on federally mandated tests.”

If educators need to prepare for standardized testing, then there will be more stress to “teach to the test” while students miss out aspects such as essential skill-building and engaging materials that may propel them to learn more in the future.

“If we require public schools to maintain the current standards and testing program for the next school year, we essentially are asking educators to work rapidly to fit square pegs into round holes,” Benjamin Scafidi and Eric Wearne, professors in the Coles College of Business at Kennesaw State University, write at The Hill. 

Despite these drawbacks, standardized testing may be a reality in your school in the spring. Start familiarizing your students with the format now and considering how you can make the experience fair and comfortable.  

preparing for 2020-2021 exams

Consider the Current State of the SAT and ACT

On top of federal standardized testing, some students are eager to take college entrance exams like the SAT and ACT. These tests were also shelved earlier this year but are making a resurgence. Do students really need to take these tests?

Even before the pandemic, colleges were moving away from SAT and ACT scores to evaluate students. In an article for the Hechinger Report in 2019, Alina Tugend reported how more colleges are making these test scores optional and the potential impacts of this. Without SAT and ACT requirements, colleges are more fair and improve diversity.

However, telling students that they don’t need to take the SAT or ACT is easier said than done. Many want to get any leg-up they can in the college application process and still view these tests as major factors when applying. 

“We have created such a testing culture among the kids,” Josh Godinez, President of the California Association of School Counselors, says. “To tell them all of a sudden that the tests don’t matter, it’s a hard one for them to swallow even though it’s a reality.”

Even some colleges aren’t sure what the future of the SAT and ACT is. Telling a student that a test is optional adds a new kind of stressor. Not only will students feel anxiety over test prep and getting good grades, but also over whether their efforts are going to help them gain admission to their top choices at all. 

“Being test-optional…is far different from not taking the scores into consideration at all,” Jeffrey Selingo, special advisor and professor of practice at Arizona State University, and author of “Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions,” writes at The Atlantic. “In making this move, colleges have created a muddled middle ground that confuses applicants and makes some distrustful of the whole process.”

While your basic standardized test prep can help with the SAT and ACT, expect students in higher grades to ask about these tests and seek out assistance and advice for how and when to take these exams. 

As an educator, you can’t control every test that your students take. However, you can take steps to build up their critical thinking skills and find assessments that limit cheating. You can also help students become eager learners who can handle standardized exams with their use of logic and problem-solving.

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