Organic Strategies for Test Prep: Math Short Response

Preface: This post belongs to a series of posts that discuss organic strategies for test preparation. State testing is always a sticky issue and I want to steer clear of the “stickiness.” This series of posts does not aim to discuss the controversial issue of teaching to the test, but rather aims to inform both families and teachers of options for more organic ways to approach test-prep in the classroom and/or at home by finding ways to integrate testing strategies into strong teaching.

Special Note: While reading, please keep in mind that my teaching has been done in New York City so my background knowledge lies mostly with NYS tests. While some of the specifics may differ from your state, I believe that the strategies and ideas will be applicable regardless of location.

What Is So Complicated About Math? The thing that I love and hate most about math is that it is such a large content area with so many distinct topics. This can be a good thing because there are so many different topics that everyone can be great at something! It can also be detrimental because since there are so many topics, if a student struggles with one, they seem to generalize it as “being bad at math.” We need to support students in realizing their mathematical strengths and in understanding that math is comprised of so many of the things around us. It is our job to make math possible for our students.

What Are Some Common Challenges When Taking the Math Test? Math tests are often made up of two portions: the short response and the long response. Here are some common issues that come up for students while taking the test.

  1. Show What You Know! Many students think they must only show work for the long response but this is not true! The more work students show, the better chance they have of catching a mistake and answering a question accurately. Of course there are problems that “we just know,” but we need to be careful not to let students use that as an excuse to get out of showing work for those problems that require it.
  2. Struggling Readers A math test can be daunting for a struggling reader. Many of the directions are wordy and students can lose confidence and shut down if they feel that they cannot read the directions. Word problems are also a large component of the test so we need to be sure to prepare our students for this ahead of time.
  3. Math Vocabulary Mathematical vocabulary is a huge issue for students, even those who demonstrate strengths in math. Words can get in the way of process in math. If you don’t understand what the question is asking, you cannot begin to solve it. We need to incorporate math vocabulary into our teaching on a daily basis.
  4. Double Checking Being careful is not something that is innate for everyone. Therefore we need to teach students how to be careful in math! Often times, students are able to retrace their steps in a problem and find their error when they double check. Many students feel like this is a waste of time, but it is not. We cannot afford to make it optional! Students must be double checking their work during class, at home and on the test.
  5. Using the Time Pacing is an issue for many students during a math test. Some students move very quickly and then sit around twiddling their thumbs for the rest of the time. Others zone out and cannot stay focused (partially an issue of focus and stamina) and do not finish the test. We can support students throughout the year by making sure we discuss what an appropriate amount of time is for each activity we do at home and in school. Giving auditory time warnings can also help. For older students, teaching them to wear a watch (and use it) is another helpful strategy. My greatest concern is with the students who race through the test and do not double check. This can be avoided with discussions at home and in school.

How Can We Help In regards to the 5 areas of challenge above, there are many things we can do in the classroom and at home to support our children.

  • Demand that your child shows his/her work. To do this, we must offer some incentive for showing work clearly. For some, positive praise is enough. Others need a more tangible incentive, for example 5 extra points on your homework or a reward (I suggest something that is not materialistic like extra free time or eating lunch with a teacher.) Making the “show your work” rule a portion of the grade can really motivate students.
  • We know there is going to be reading on the test, so let’s prepare our children for it! Sometimes preparing a struggling reader means practicing reading math problems and directions, but other times it means reminding them that they CAN read it on their own if they slow down and read carefully! Confidence counts!
  • Whether you are a parent at home or a teacher at school, use a math word wall to teach and maintain vocabulary. The worst thing that can happen is that your child comes home and says “I knew what that word meant but I couldn’t remember.” Saying it once isn’t enough – the words need to be on visual display for long periods of time. Students can also be given incentives for using math vocabulary. You can make it engaging with a word of the week…anytime a student uses the word, the class gets 1 minute of free chat time.
  • Practice pacing at home and in school by openly discussing what an appropriate length of time is for each activity. It might be different for different children, but students should begin to be more independent with their pacing.

The following section, including the posters were created by a great friend and colleague, Jason Skeeter, who I deem to be a math expert. He has inspired many of my math posts thus far. Skeeter excels in offering visuals such as posters and charts, creating tactile and auditory tools for learning and in offering multiple opportunities to practice the same skill in different ways. Today’s post is a collaboration, and I want to thank Jason for all of his input at!

Building Independence

“My main push for all students has been around practicing skills that build independence:
– Work must be shown on all problems even if it is “easy”
– Work must be shown on all multiple choice problems
– Students must explain why an answer is correct or incorrect
– Students (who are high-level math thinkers) must write an explanation for why their answer is correct
These posters were created to help maximize independence and to strengthen work ethic. Feel free to click for download.”

How to be An Independent Worker Poster by Jason Skeeter

What Does Hard Work Look Like Poster by Jason Skeeter

Do you have other tips about preparing students to be successful on the math test and tying it into your teaching? Share your ideas on EdGeeks by posting a comment!

Check out the rest of the Organic Test Prep Strategies strand here:

Organic Strategies for Test Prep: Listening Comprehension

Organic Strategies for Test Prep: Reading Comprehension

Organic Strategies for Test-Prep

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  • The Weekly Lowdown #12 | EdGeeks January 27, 2012 - 7:04am

    […] 1-26-12 Home-School Connection: Organic Strategies for Test Prep: Math Short Response How to be An Independent Worker Poster by Jason Skeeter […]


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