5 Ways to Avoid the Trap of Test Prep

The AP Language test is a month away. Only 14 school days (Spring Break, y’all. Woot!), which means 7 class periods with each of my AP classes between now and the big day.

This imparts in me equal parts excitement, dread, and crippling panic. I’m not sure what my problem is. I’m not the one taking the test, but my test anxiety runs high.

test 3

Now, Amy has written beautifully in the past about the test scores and how little they really mean. How AP and workshop can be beautiful partners.  I applaud her conviction. I need to learn from her resolve. Because all year, I can workshop and weave in test prep (in other words, my priorities are straight – I’m building readers and writers, not test takers), but when the test draws near, I start thinking in numbers. Always dangerous.

When this happens, I feel my brows furrow. I’m suddenly focused on the wrong thing.

I can FEEL it.

Experimenting with workshop during semester two of the 2014-2015 school, I very purposefully placed reading and writing experience above test prep. My scores went up. Last year, I was all in. Lots of student choice. More focus on why and how, instead of what. My scores went up.

Do students need practice with the multiple choice format? Yes.

Should they write several AP practice essays over the course of the year with self scoring, student sample analysis, peer and teacher feedback? Certainly.

Will students be prepared for the test if test prep is secondary to building authentic readers and writers all year. Unequivocally, yes.

Just a few days ago, Donalyn Miller beautifully stated that the best way to improve test scores naturally is to “provide access to books, encourage free choice, give children time to read, and actively support their reading development at school and home.” Her piece for the Nerdy Book Club furthered my determination to remain focused on my students as readers, not as test takers. This is what workshop does. Focuses on readers, writers, and the humans who are so much more than test scores.

Here are a few suggestions to keep focused on what really matters (in my humble opinion), even as AP tests draw nigh, and frankly, in the face of any “big” test.

1. Focus on Experience

I tell my students every year, that living life and being aware of humanity in general is the best argument preparation there is. So, when I saw Elizabeth Matheny‘s spring break Twitter challenge, I immediately asked if I could adopt the idea. Matheny provides her students with a hashtag to document their adventures and several suggestions of ways to really live it up over break as a way to not only build community, but provide inspiration for narratives her students will write in the coming weeks.

I’ve got some ideas brewing to have my students write their own author bios (like the quippy book jacket variety) after break to celebrate themselves as writers. Documenting new experiences may be just the thing to provide focused attention to new passions  and open eyes to the wider world.

My students will start Friday using #langbreak. Follow our adventures and feel free to add your own if you’ve been waiting all this time for break like we have!

2. Write from the Heart First

I used to have students write endless practice essays. Knowing the format seemed important to scoring well, so I had students write in class, take prompts home over the weekend for homework, and churn out essay after essay of (no offense former students) formulaic crap that I dreaded grading.

These days, I’ve embraced a new philosophy. My students need to write more, but practice essays aren’t the thing. Quick writes in class are the thing. Weekly one pagers building their fluency and skills of expression about quotes that stick with them from readings are the thing. Poems about community are the thing. Book reviews on texts that make them feel smart are the thing.

The thing is, students build their writing skills in writing what they care about. They can then apply that to the essay at hand, regardless of the essay type. I spend a small amount of time going through the specifics of the argument and analysis essays, and then we look at countless mentors, we read as writers, and we learn how to effectively break the “rules.” The College Board suggests that effective essays are built from developing a “personal style.” No mention of five paragraph essays to be found.

3. Talk

  • Speed date prompts for the sake of brainstorming (not more and more writing – do that elsewhere)
  • Discuss current events
  • Share insights on readings (assigned and independent) through the lens of analysis (or argument, or synthesis)
  • Reflect on multiple choice passages without the questions
  • Solicit feedback on writing and make connections to specific skills to move that writing forward


4. Review Your Reading Lives

At least one class period each year, right before the test, is reserved for a trip down memory lane. Students get into small groups and list common themes they have seen in argument prompts we’ve discussed over the course of the year (good vs. evil, power struggles, individuality, etc.). They then make lists of everything they’ve read, studied, reflected on that might be good evidence for arguments related to those ideas.

We fill posters upon posters of ideas to put around the room and remind ourselves how incredibly smart we all are. No one need fear “not knowing what to write.” Students have been preparing for this test since they learned to read, just by reading and living. Little review required.

5. Make Class Time Count

This is a “to each their own” example. Many classes do very little after the AP test. Students relate that they “worked really hard to get to the test” and the class periods up until the end of the year are free time as a reward.

I reward my students after the AP exam too. We have another book club (students are choosing this year from this extensive list of nonfiction titles, to which I just added the Pulitzer Prize winner Evicted) and they complete a multigenre project on an area of study we’ve not explicitly studied together (sports, politics, language, pop culture, etc.).

My class is about reading, writing, speaking, listening, and investigating life. That doesn’t stop because students took a three hour test.

Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. Her spring break will include finishing Sabaa Tahir’s A Torch Against the Night, spending time tiptoeing through the tulips with her daughter Ellie, and taking her own advice to live a little and try something new (curling, anyone?).  Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum and follow her students’ AP Spring Break adventures on Twitter #langbreak. 


11 thoughts on “5 Ways to Avoid the Trap of Test Prep

  1. […] does this Test Transfer look like in action? I love the ideas Lisa Dennis writes about in her post 5 Ways To Avoid the Trap of Test Prep. These are excellent routines to put into place all year to help you feel more […]


  2. Parker Paige January 19, 2018 at 6:32 am Reply

    The blog is very much interesting and it helped me out solve my problems easily and go through the points and gave the proper point to be get forward for test prep. Thank you!


  3. […] Wednesday, I made reference to helping prepare my AP students for their test, by keeping our discussions focused on the real world. So…test prep as a natural byproduct to […]


  4. mrsturnerblog April 12, 2017 at 7:46 pm Reply

    I love these ideas! This is my first year with AP Lang, so I’m in wonder/worry zone–I wonder if I’ve given them the right skills, I worry that I haven’t…etc. In the end, though, we’ve been writing and thinking and reading, and they’ve grown. 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lisa Dennis April 13, 2017 at 7:48 am Reply

      The first year of AP is a lot of wonder/worry. I totally hear you. But the fun grows and grows. My first year, my principal eased me in and I shared a section of 30 with another teacher. Two teachers, 15 kids a piece. It was AMAZING. The program has grown and this year, I have four classes of 85 kids! Last year, 61 kids took the test! Next year…7 sections. Kids hear the class is fun. I know the class is challenging. It’s a beautiful combination. Your students growing is all that matters! Smile and send them in to do great things.


  5. Amy Rasmussen April 12, 2017 at 6:47 pm Reply

    Oh, my, goodness! Thank you for these reminders, Lisa. You know, I’ve had this student teacher — and he is awesome (hiring him at my school, yay)! BUT — I’m a bit nervous. Okay, a lot nervous, about the AP exam. The control freak that lives in my is screaming DO MORE. Your post reminds me we have been doing more — all year with some of my students, since January with others. Thank you these tips.

    This line is my favorite. I might frame it: “This is what workshop does. Focuses on readers, writers, and the humans who are so much more than test scores.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lisa Dennis April 13, 2017 at 7:46 am Reply

      You are simply the best, Amy. Thank you for the kind words. I’m nervous too. I can’t quite get it to go away, but I’m trying to focus on the fun!


  6. ML April 12, 2017 at 11:24 am Reply

    Thank you for the ideas here and affirmation I needed. I also love to watch an inspiring movie like the Great Debaters the day before!

    Let’s keep fighting the good fight and living /loving workshop life!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lisa Dennis April 13, 2017 at 7:45 am Reply

      Thank you! I love to show the 50 inspirational speeches in 2 minutes (or something like that – they are all over youtube) and then send them to the library for the test with my colleagues in the hallway giving them high fives.


  7. Amy Estersohn April 12, 2017 at 10:59 am Reply

    My favorite thing to do for test prep is to sit and take the released questions myself. About 75% of my exam prep with students focuses on coaching habits of mind and about 25% of it is content, vocabulary, acronyms, and test-taking strategies.

    What I admire most about your approach is that you refuse to see the exam as the “end” of the class, as if this class were only a lead-up to an exam. Learning continues … and I’m totally jealous that your students will have the chance to read Evicted!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lisa Dennis April 13, 2017 at 7:44 am Reply

      Thanks, Amy. We have a lot of fun after the exam too, but as I tell my kids, “If you thought we’d be doing nothing after the exam, you don’t know me, yourself, or our class at all.” 😉


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