How to Do Your Best on Standardized Tests: Some Suggestions for
Ronald K. Hambleton and Stephen Jirka
PART ONE: WHAT ARE "STANDARDIZED TESTS"?
Educational tests, sometimes called
"standardized tests," seem to be everywhere. In Massachusetts,
the Department of Education administers the Massachusetts Comprehensive
Assessment System tests (better known as MCAS) in English Language
Arts, Mathematics, and Science to learners in the public school
system. The Educational Testing Service administers the Scholastic
Assessment Test (the SAT) to learners who are considering going
to college. The American Council on Education administers the Tests
of General Educational Development (GED). You can't get a high school
diploma, go to college, join the military, get a professional license
or certificate, or get a job without passing a test. You can't even
get a driver's license without passing a test. With so many standardized
tests around, adult learners would be wise to learn how to do their
best on them, and to help their children do well on them, too.
Standardized tests are particular kinds of tests, different from
the final examination a high school teacher might design for her
math course, or the writing exercise an ESOL teacher might design
to see how well his learners are doing. When talking about tests,
"standardized" simply means that everyone who takes the
test is given the same amount of time and sees the same or very
similar test questions. "Standardized" also means scoring
is done very carefully so that test scores do not depend upon who
happens to be doing the scoring. Why are standardized tests so widely
used? Because, by and large, they have been shown to be (1) an efficient
way to collect information about what people know and can do, (2)
objective in the sense that test scores do not depend to any great
extent on who happens to score the answers, (3) valid in that they
often provide relevant and useful data for making decisions about
mastery of a body of knowledge and skills and potential for success,
and (4) convenient and cost-effective because they can be administered
to many people at the same time.
Governments, the armed services, industry, universities and colleges,
credentialing agencies, and many other groups use standardized tests
because they are convinced by the evidence that such tests offer
the best basis for making decisions about who has the necessary
knowledge and skills for some particular purpose (like going on
to college or being hired for a job.) Human beings make tests and
human beings administer them, and all human beings have biases.
Bias can sometimes creep into standardized tests, but it can usually
be spotted and the problem fixed, or, if the problem of bias cannot
be solved, the test can be eliminated.
Some people believe that standardized tests are used too often
and that there are better ways to measure ability and readiness.
For purposes of discussion, let's consider the task of determining
whether adult learners have the same knowledge and skills as high
school graduates. This is an important task in the United States,
because high school diplomas are an entry to higher education, the
military, and lots of jobs. Many adults who did not obtain a high
school diploma during their teens later want to demonstrate that
they have about the same level of knowledge and skills as high school
graduates and thereby gain the same opportunities. Today we have
the Tests of General Educational Development (the five tests that
make up the GED), which are used around the country as a way for
people to demonstrate they have knowledge and skills equivalent
to those of high school graduates. One alternative to passing the
GED would be for adult learners to return to high school and take
regular school tests along with state graduation tests, but with
a million persons desiring GED certificates each year, this would
surely be impractical. The external diploma programs offered by
many adult basic education programs are an excellent alternative,
but they require a great deal of individual conferencing.
As a standardized test, then, the GED certainly has its place.
It provides many thousands of adult learners in this country with
a second chance. Teachers are familiar with the material covered
by GED tests, so they can design test preparation instruction effectively.
And the GED is widely accepted as a high school equivalent: community
colleges, universities, the military, skilled trades, and employers
who require a high school diploma welcome those who demonstrate
proficiency through the successful passage of the GED tests. Clearly,
the GED tests and others like them have an important role to play
in this country.
We believe that some of the problems surrounding the standardized
tests used in adult basic education programs, such as the GED and
the TABE, are not with the tests themselves, but with learners'
test-taking anxiety and lack of test-taking skills. These two factors
are interrelated; knowing more about standardized tests and how
to take them can boost a learner's self-confidence and reduce her
test-taking anxiety. However, people are not born with test-taking
skills, and sometimes learners from other countries have had very
little exposure to American-style tests with multiple-choice items
and separate answer sheets, or with the computer-administered tests
that are becoming popular.
PART TWO: DOING YOUR BEST ON STANDARDIZED TESTS
At this point, we would like to offer six very practical suggestions
to help adult learners perform to their best ability on standardized
1. Get positive about taking tests!
Adult learners need to think positively about themselves, the learning
they are doing, and the tests they will be taking to assess their
learning. While standardized tests can be daunting, they also offer
adult learners a way to move up, to provide a role model for their
children, to get a better job, or to go to college. All too often,
adults without a basic education see themselves as victims. A positive
attitude can boost confidence and improve test performance.
Researchers have found that test performance is, in part, psychological.
When learners receive positive messages about their ability to learn
and to succeed academically, they are less likely to conform to
stereotypes that they believe others have of them, and they perform
significantly better on tests. So, adult learners and their teachers
must be positive!
Adult learners need to see testing as an opportunity to demonstrate
their ability, not evidence that they are victims of a system that
cares little about them. Doctors often tell their patients to be
positive, because research has shown that patients who remain positive
live longer and avoid illnesses better than those who do not. The
same is true for adult learners when taking tests-be positive and
you'll perform at a higher level.
2. Clear the brain for learning and testing!
Many adult learners lead stressful lives. Stress comes from family,
from the job, from personal health concerns, from the times we live
in, and so on. But if adult learners want to improve their lives
and those of their family members, they need to find time to concentrate
on learning. Adult learners need to have some quiet time each week
to study, and regularity and consistency make learning easier. They
must see this "learning time" as something they deserve.
The study place should be quiet to allow for concentration-perhaps
the local library on a Saturday morning, or a quiet place at home
in the early morning or late night if necessary, and should be dedicated
to studying, with books, paper, and pen readily available. Learners
need to stay organized because this time is precious, and they owe
it to themselves to make the most of it.
Adult learners also need some quiet time right before taking a
test. An hour or two to clear their heads of life's stresses, away
from family, away from the job: time to think about the challenges
associated with the upcoming test. An adult learner who arrives
late for a test, huffing and puffing, upset about a family- or job-related
problem is not emotionally ready for the challenges of a test. If
failure follows, the test is often blamed, but the real problem
might be that the adult learner was not psychologically ready to
perform to her capabilities. If prior test-taking experience resulted
in failure, the adult learner should strive to put that behind her
and focus on the present test and her efforts to perform well on
3. Prepare for the test "strategically"!
We were talking with a colleague the other day who told us about
an adult learner who persisted in studying for one section of a
GED test that he thought he was weak in. He had failed the test
several times previously, yet this one section was only 10% of the
test. This learner would have been much wiser to consider the content
coverage of the test (which was information readily available to
him) and to plan his study time accordingly.
There are two key strategies for preparing to take a standardized
The first strategy is to become familiar with the format of the
test: What sorts of questions are asked, how is information conveyed,
and how are answers logged in? This knowledge will reduce the level
of surprise and confusion that robs the test taker of time she could
be using to answer questions. The second strategy is to research
the content coverage of a test and then to apply the study time
the learner has available on the content that will count the most.
With most standardized tests such as the TABE and GED, the format
and content information is readily available. Let's take the GED
as an example. It is based on a high school curriculum and performance
standards that are used throughout the country. The five tests are
in a multiple-choice format (except for one essay), and have been
developed by experts familiar with secondary and adult education.
The Language Arts Test emphasizes organizing text and the mechanics
of writing. The Mathematics Test includes computational problems
and real world problems and applications. The test will give you
any formulas you will need to use. Calculators are used with one
of the sections. Some math answers are multiple choice, but many
are marked on little "bubble charts." The Social Studies
Test draws content from United States and World History, Government,
Economics, and Geography. That test contains at least one excerpt
from a major historical document, such as the Declaration of Independence.
The Reading Test will have the adult learner read and interpret
many different forms and varieties of literature, such as fiction,
nonfiction, prose, poetry, and drama from different cultures and
time periods, as well as use business-related documents. The Science
Test has the test taker interpret and use scientific information
in the form of text or graphics, and material from the life sciences
or physical sciences. Adult learners might be asked to interpret
experimental results or explain how results from a classic study
apply to the everyday world. Even more detail on specific GED tests
is readily available from the GED testing service and in bookstores.
Adult learners who want to study strategically can use information
like that provided above to orient themselves to tests and focus
their study time for maximum results. They can easily find out what
content is covered by a particular test and how much importance
will be given to various topics; for example, geometry makes up
a small part of the GED math test. With this kind of information,
learners can focus their study time on the most important topics,
and when those topics have been mastered, they can move to the less-important
ones. In addition, knowing what the most important content areas
are can help learners find the right study aids.
4. Become familiar with test-taking techniques!
Going into a test with a good knowledge of basic test-taking techniques
will help a learner to do his best. Much has been written on good
techniques; here is a sampling of the most often repeated advice:
- Listen carefully to directions.
One of the most critical rules for adult learners is to listen
carefully to the test directions: How much time is available?
How will the test be scored? What advice, if any, is given about
when to randomly guess on multiple-choice test questions? Does
the test administrator have any special instructions? Knowing
available time allows adult learners to apportion their time so
that they don't need to rush to finish at the end. Knowing about
scoring also helps with time use: if 50% of the score will be
assigned to essays, then test takers should devote 50% of their
test time to writing the essays. And as for whether to guess on
multiple-choice test questions, the answer depends on how the
test items are scored. If there is no penalty for wrong answers,
learners would be smart to answer all questions, so when time
is about to run out, they should randomly guess at any remaining
answers prior to handing in their answer sheets. On the other
hand, if there is a small penalty for wrong answers, learners
should be encouraged to answer if they can eliminate at least
one of the answer choices. Otherwise, guessing has no particular
advantage. Concerning special instructions, adult learners must
remember to listen carefully: the instructions might include information
about the most important questions on the test, whether or not
calculators can be used, the desirable length of essay questions,
and so on.
- Scan the test before starting to answer questions.
Adult learners must remember to scan the test first to get an
idea of length and difficulty. If the test is made up of multiple-choice
questions, they should work on the questions in order and not
spend too much time on any one question. Skipping around the test
and doing a question here and there is not a good strategy because
valuable time is wasted and might lead to errors in marking the
answer sheet. If essay questions are part of the test, however,
it makes sense to scan these questions and do the easier ones
- Understand a question before answering it.
With multiple-choice questions, adult learners must read the questions
carefully prior to answering. One of the most common mistakes
is not answering the question that is actually being asked. Negative
words in the "question stem" can be especially confusing.
Sometimes words are highlighted in the question stem and these
too are important clues. When in doubt, adult learners should
eliminate choices that they know to be wrong, and then choose
an answer, at random if necessary, from the remaining choices.
Their partial knowledge will be rewarded with such a test-taking
- Review the choices.
Here are a few additional tips for multiple-choice questions:
(1) Read the question stem, try to think of an answer, and then
look for it among the available answer choices. If that doesn't
work, at least eliminate the choices that appear to be wrong prior
to guessing an answer. (2) If the answer choices are numbers or
dates, middle choices are often correct. Note also that longer
answers and/or more general answers among the answer choices are
more likely to be correct. (3) Sometimes test takers are given
a choice among essay questions. Adult learners should be encouraged
to watch for this option. Sadly, many test takers fail to heed
directions such as, "Answer one of the three questions below"
and try to answer all three instead, thus scoring lower than they
- Be flexible in approaching essay questions.
With short answer and essay questions, adult learners should be
encouraged to try to write at least something, even if it's just
a few sentences. Often partial marks are assigned, so even a partial
answer will generate some points. Before starting to write their
essay, adult learners should try to prepare an outline. Paraphrasing
the question itself is often a great way to start an essay. Clear
writing, along with good grammar and spelling, are typically important
in the way essays are scored. Adult learners should therefore
remember to review their written answers for the use of good sentence
structure, grammar, and spelling.
- Review your work.
It's important to remember to review your answers and essays.
We all tend to breathe a sigh of relief when the last question
has been completed, but adult learners who leave a test with time
still available are missing an opportunity to improve their scores.
The test is not over until the time is up, or at least until every
answer has been checked and essays have been reviewed for grammar
- Stay as calm as you can.
Above all, adult learners should stay calm and simply do the best
job they can with the time available. Staying calm will make you
more efficient while you are answering.
5. Take a practice test-or even better, take several practice tests!
No one learns to fly a plane, drive a car, swim, or play golf just
by reading how-to books. Practice makes perfect, as the saying goes,
and testing is no exception. There are lots of practice tests available
for the GED; in fact, bookstores are full of books containing practice
tests for most national standardized tests. However, adult learners
need to take these tests under test-like conditions, and that means
with the time limit that will be in place when the test counts.
They need to be exposed to some of the natural anxiety that arises
when seeing firsthand the test and test question formats. They need
to practice their pacing, practice reading the questions and answering
them carefully, practice making judgments about when and how to
guess, and so on. Of course, these practice tests can be scored,
so both weak and strong knowledge and skill areas can be identified.
In a sense, every test, whether it is intended for practice or not,
provides experience that can help one perform better on future tests.
Adult learners can mull over their performance and how they might
do better the next time-by being better rested, being more prepared
on the content area, making improved use of available time, and
6. Read, read, read!
Studies have shown that vocabulary is one of the most important
factors in doing well on standardized tests. Every time a test taker
encounters a word he doesn't know, he is less likely to understand
a reading passage or a question. It sounds overly simple, but the
fact is that vocabulary development is critical to success in all
subject areas. The best way to build vocabulary is by reading, reading,
and then more reading. Reading shows words in context-that is, how
they are really used in sentences to make meaning-and that's the
best way to learn them. Adult learners should read in their spare
time, read on the bus to work, and read before going to bed...and
should try to read for understanding.
In this article we have tried to give a good overview of standardized
testing and provide practical suggestions for helping adult learners
demonstrate their knowledge and skills on these tests. Our hope
is that when learners are equipped with basic knowledge about these
tests and proven test-taking approaches, they will be able to demonstrate
what they are truly capable of.
Ronald K. Hambleton holds the title of Distinguished University
Professor and is Chairperson of the Research and Evaluation Methods
Program and Co-Director of the Center for Educational Assessment
at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Professor Hambleton
has been teaching graduate-level courses at UMass since 1969. Stephen
Jirka is a doctoral candidate in the Research and Evaluation Methods
Program at UMass Amherst. His current research includes external
validation of test scores and standard setting methods.
Originally published in Adventures in Assessment,
Volume 16 (Spring 2004),
SABES/World Education, Boston, MA, Copyright 2004.
Funding support for the publication of this document on the Web
provided in part by the Ohio State Literacy Resource Center as part
of the LINCS
Assessment Special Collection.