When test-prep is mentioned today, the conversation is almost exclusively in reference to preparation for standardized tests. Like it or not, student performance on standardized tests is often the measure by which those outside the classroom determine whether or not the school and teachers are complying with state and federal mandates.

Sensible, Effective Test Prep

Participation and willful cooperation with mandated assessments varies widely from school to school. Doorway to College Foundation studies the most-positive practices in the most-successful school districts and then helps struggling schools adopt these practices. At the root of this effort is the question, “Is there anything the district can do to support teachers and encourage students to perform better on mandated assessments such as the ACT?” The short answer is, “YES!”

Based on the input of hundreds of teachers over three decades, Doorway to College Foundation has identified three dimensions of positive and effective test preparation:

       1) Teacher Inclusion

       2) Test Strategy

       3) Content Review and Practice

Teacher Inclusion

In schools where students tend for the most part to do well on standardized tests, these examinations are not overly disruptive. Parents, teachers, and administrators in these schools benefit from a common belief that education provides essential, lifelong benefits for children, and examinations are an expected component of the educational system. It is also understood and accepted that the assessment reflects only one perspective on the question, “With the resources at our disposal, are we doing as well as we hope to do?”

Doorway to College Foundation believes there are specific things a school can do to help teachers and students — and even parents — feel engaged and included in mandated assessment programs like the ACT. However, these efforts all must begin with the inclusion of teachers in planning for success.

  • Make teacher inclusion a priority; every teacher has to feel involved in the process.
    • Set up a test-preparation steering committee of department heads and outstanding teachers, with appropriate compensation for the extra work
    • Hold faculty meeting discussions about how to prepare for the test and motivate students
    • Include teachers in determining how to embed meaningful prep into their existing curriculum
  • Involve teachers in finding fun ways to motivate students, such as:
    • Create a test-themed poster contest or talent show
    • Organize study labs
    • Brainstorm ways to involve students and faculty in school-wide motivational activities and events, such as a music video
    • Instill pride with a “Because my name is on it” campaign
    • Make an explicit connection between students’ ACT scores and college (availability of scholarships, potential for success and graduation)
  • Involve teachers in generating ideas to reach parents, such as:
    • Provide testing information at the fall Parent Night
    • Ask the PTA or PTO to get engaged
    • Publish newsletter announcements about school activities leading up to the test
    • Get volunteers to offer college application help for students who want it
  • Include teachers in deciding how best to provide test-preparation strategies, materials, and practice to all students
  • Include teachers in setting expectations, such as:
    • Students will participate in daily bell-ringer and “exit-pass” challenges
    • Administration will recognize contributors
    • All students will be included in test-prep activities.
    • Faculty will cooperate with and be supportive of test prep and motivational activities
  • Include teachers in setting a school goal, then celebrating the results.

Test Strategy

Good test-taking is a skill. Although some students develop this skill intuitively in the early grades, for those intimidated by the testing environment, test-taking strategy needs careful and individual attention. All students improve their chance of realizing their potential on an examination if they have an appropriate strategy going in. On the other hand, at any given ability level, students can stumble into numerous ways to score less than their best.

In a sense, standardized tests are academic competitions. Students are being compared to others who are in the same grade or have the same goal, such as enrolling at a selective university. With any competition, those who are prepared tend to perform better. Students need to be ready to attack a 3 to 4-hour exam—without giving up before it’s over.

Every student should know the format of the test in each content area. On an individualized basis, they should know how to best use their time. And, if practice materials are available, they should know how to approach each type of question.

With the ACT, as with graduate license exams, commercial test-prep companies often market the idea that students can “game the test” using secret tricks or methods obtained only by paying large sums of money. Unfortunately, these companies are selling snake-oil cure-alls. Their performance claims are not supported by any valid research.

The most-effective ACT test-taking strategies are those aligned with good teaching. For the most-positive impact, Doorway to College Foundation suggests the following school-wide strategy:

1)  Administer a retired ACT test to all 11th graders in January. This provides a baseline and identifies the specific areas where the student needs more review. Test prep is even more effective if students have had some actual exposure to the test.
2) Beginning in February, provide a proven ACT-strategy test-prep program for all 11th grade students.
3) Throughout the months of March and April, provide in-class content reviews, including activities that are embedded into the curriculum as well as focused study reviews outside of the classroom.
4) Create school enthusiasm for the upcoming test date, perhaps with a school-created video or a “Prep Rally” week of motivational activities.
5) Administer the state-mandated test on the designated date.
6) Analyze the test results with the goal of improving the process for next year.

Content Review and Practice

This ties back to the oldest form of test prep. Clearly, the best way to do well on a math test is to learn the math. Content review is a way of refreshing what may have been learned and forgotten. It also avoids the careless errors caused by rusty skills.

Practice items and practice tests are an excellent way to prepare for a multiple-choice test such as the ACT. The individual practice items will indicate areas of weakness where a deeper content review is required. With a knowledgeable teacher, a complete practice test can suggest appropriate guidance on pacing and application of other test-taking strategies specific for each student.

Doorway to College Foundation offers the following guidelines for content review:

  • Students need a structured approach for reviewing what they have learned and addressing those particular areas in which they need help.
  • The solution should be embedded into the curriculum to complement rather than disrupt instruction.
  • Department heads and department staff need to be included in developing the plan, the implementation, and the measuring of success.
  • Teachers have to feel they are teaching to the standards and not just teaching to the test.
  • These content reviews should have value outside of just taking the ACT test.


State-mandated tests do not have to be viewed as a negative disruption to instruction. Instead, they can be the catalyst for bringing together faculty, students, and parents to work toward a mutual goal. For more information on how to implement teacher inclusion to gain faculty buy-in and improve test scores, contact us at Doorway to College Foundation. Call 877-927-8378 or email answers@doorwaytocollege.com.