the dos and don'ts of managing state testing in the middle school classroom

As the snow starts melting and the sounds of birds once again return, teachers are reminded of one thing: state testing. Okay, okay, they’re also thinking about the end of the school year, but the state testing hurdle has to be conquered first. With all the demands that come with managing state testing – staff meetings, mandatory trainings, team meetings, parent questions – it’s easy to become overwhelmed. But take my advice: don’t stress. After proctoring the state test for several years, I’ve developed a list of dos and don’ts to help you feel more prepared and at ease during the testing season.

Before State Testing Preparations

Classroom Environment

If you haven’t heard yet, you will likely be mandated to cover up any content-related material on your classroom walls. However, this doesn’t mean your classroom has to look cluttered, distracting, or disorganized. Consider covering your content-related materials with collaborative posters featuring motivational quotes or messages from your students. I love how Mr. Scuteri pins a rolled-up piece of butcher paper over his bulletin boards and releases it for the testing session. This reduces how intrusive the testing environment can be on your day-to-day routines.

Unfortunately, many school districts require all words on walls to be covered (including inspirational quotes). If this is your situation, consider using this time to get a head start on the last day of school. Don’t take everything down, but if you have content on your walls from the beginning of the school year and students likely won’t use it again, take it down and put it away for the year.

Next, consider the arrangement of your classroom. Some state testing guidelines specify how far apart students must be and where their screens/tests should be positioned, so refer to your test administration manual. Think through your arrangement beforehand, so you have a plan in place.

Finally, don’t overlook your lighting. Many of my teammates prefer to teach with the lights off (no big deal), but when state testing season comes around the corner, they turn on all of their overhead lights. This small change can have a significant impact on your students. Consider letting in as much natural light as possible and turning on a few soft lamps. The goal is to create a calm environment, not a harsh one.

dos and don's of managing the classroom environment during state testing
Classroom Environment Dos:
  • Cover up content-related material on your classroom walls
  • Use collaborative posters featuring motivational quotes or messages from your students if possible
  • Reduce clutter (shelves, cabinets, tabletops)
  • Arrange desks or tables as outlined in the state testing guidelines
  • Let in as much natural light as possible
  • Turn on a few soft lamps 
  • Create a calm environment
Classroom Environment Don’ts:
  • Create a cluttered, distracting, or disorganized environment
  • Overlook your lighting or seating arrangement
  • Create a harsh environment
  • Make your students feel anxious

Prepping Your Students For Testing

It’s normal for your stress to escalate the week or two before state testing. I caution you against frantic cramming, though. Have faith in all the hard work and learning you’ve done over the last 7-8 months, and maybe even consider taking a walk down memory lane with your students. Give your students a pep talk on the day or two before the state test. I recommend this one from Kid President or this one from Rocky Balboa. 

After your pep talk, review your major learning units over the year. Put together a slideshow with pictures, units, memorable lessons, finished projects, etc., and remind your students of how far you’ve come. Invite them to flip through their binders alongside you. That “I remember this!” spark can go a long way in building students’ confidence before the test.

Next, walk your students through what the test will look like if you are able. Many state testing providers have a practice test for students to preview the tools, buttons, & layout beforehand. Walk through it together and give them an idea of how many questions they will have, how long they will get, how much they’ll have to read or write, etc. Use this time to ease anxiety and answer questions.

state testing prep dos and don'ts
Student Prep Dos:
  • Have faith in all of the hard work and learning you’ve done thus far
  • Review your major units of learning over the year
  • Give your students a pep talk on the day or two before the test, like this one or this one
  • Preview the test and practice using the tools
  • Use this time to ease anxiety and answer questions
Student Prep Don’ts:
  • Engage in frantic cramming
  • Let stress escalate too much 
  • Blindside your students by not talking about or previewing the test

Administering the Testing Session

Before & During the Testing Session

On the day of each testing session, give yourself plenty of time to sign out your testing materials and get your classroom set up beforehand. If you have all the testing devices in your room, take 15 minutes to set them out, get them turned on, and pre-load the testing login screen. If your students are responsible for bringing their devices, your job is just a little bit easier.

Once your students are situated and ready for the test, the next challenge is keeping them motivated throughout the lengthy testing session. One thing you might consider is a testing ticket in which students can receive a prize like a snack, a fidget toy, or an entry to a more significant raffle item. You can award points for:

  • Using their scratch paper
  • Reaching the minimum testing time (for example, working for at least 50% of the testing time)
  • Being respectful of the testing environment (quiet, nondisruptive)

And finally, have a plan for what students may do once they have completed their testing session. Can they lay their head down and rest? Read a book? Draw on a spare paper? Give options and expectations beforehand, so you’re not scrambling to answer questions or put out fires while other students are testing. 

state testing session dos and donts
Testing Session Dos:
  • Give yourself plenty of time to sign out testing materials
  • Set up the classroom beforehand
  • Set out, turn on, and pre-load testing devices if applicable
  • Consider rewarding students for using scratch paper, reaching the minimum testing time, and being respectful during the test
  • Communicate a plan for what students should do once they have completed the testing session
Testing Session Don’ts:
  • Leave your material sign-out and classroom setup to the last minute
  • Forget to provide options and expectations for students before, during, and after the test

Wrapping Up the Testing Session

You may have time after each testing session when all your students have completed the test, but the school-wide testing session is still ongoing. You can totally hit the easy button and have your students remain seated quietly until it’s over (no judgment here). Or, you can provide some quiet options in your classroom to give your kids a mental break. I recommend:

You may want to use and display a noise management tool like Bouncy Balls so your students don’t disturb your neighboring classrooms, which may still be testing.

post state testing dos and don'ts
Post-Testing Session Dos:
  • Provide quiet options for your class after the testing session
  • Use and display a noise management tool like Bouncy Balls
Post-Testing Session Don’ts:
  • Allow your classroom to descend to utter chaos immediately after the last student finishes

Despite the inevitable challenges that come with state testing, rest assured that you are equipped with plenty of tools to create a calm and supportive classroom environment for your students. By taking the necessary steps, such as creating an organized plan and setting realistic expectations before, during, and after the tests, you can help your students get through the assessments feeling both confident and proud of their performance!