The Importance of Play in Standardized Testing

Matt Levinson is the Head of the Upper Division at Marin Country Day School and is the author of From Fear to Facebook: One School’s Journey.

Standardized tests can be a wonderful teaching tool to enrich and deepen classroom learning.

What?! The prevailing wisdom states that standardized testing drains the life out of a classroom and saps students of interest and engagement, brings on unnecessary and at times crippling stress, and limits the view of what students are really learning in school.

Teaching to the test is a problem, for sure. But using the format of a standardized test as a teaching tool can be a boon to student learning. The question is how to do this successfully and in a way that captivates student interest.

Here are a few ways to use the format of standardized tests as a strategy to promote student engagement:

Play with Question Stems
Have students create the answer responses to a question stem, thinking carefully about “wrong” answers and finding the right language to construct the “correct” response. This is a highly analytical exercise and challenges students to really know and understand the concept being addressed in the question.

Flip the Question
Have students construct the question based on the answer responses. This forces students to identify the patterns and themes evident in the answer responses and thus arrive at the big idea in the question.

A “No-Stakes” Review
At the end of a class in a particular subject area, have students answer one multiple-choice, standardized test type of question to see if they grasped an idea covered in class. This is a good dipstick exercise to garner immediate feedback. Time columnist Annie Murphy Paul shares the example of Columbia Middle School in St. Louis, Missouri, where teachers have students take a quick, “no-stakes” quiz at the end of each class to see what they learned.

The Quiz Show Format
Play “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” with multiple-choice questions. The popular ’90s TV show invited participants to answer a series of questions, sometimes enlisting the help of peers through the “Call a Friend” option, in which the participant could call a friendly source of information. The show also employed the “50/50” option, where two incorrect responses were eliminated from the answer list so that the participant could choose between the last two options. Teachers can break the class into teams to play this game. In a more modern version, the “Call a Friend” option could give students one minute to Google the answer, forcing them to use intelligent search language to find the “right” answer. Students could also text a friend to get extra help.

The Build Your Own Test
Give the class a mixed up practice test, with the questions scrambled and in no apparent order of difficulty. Have teams of students re-order the questions, moving from easiest to hardest, being prepared to explain and defend why a certain question was easy or difficult. This also invites the important conversation to consider that, when taking a standardized test, all questions are actually equal, with no single question having more value. Many students get hung up on the “hard” question and spend too much time on that one instead of moving through the test to answer the most questions correctly.

Dispute the Question
Have students debate the merits of the wording of a particular question to find flaws, bias or shortcomings and then rewrite the question with more careful wording.

Building experiences for students to “play” with a test can help to defuse anxiety, create familiarity and comfort, offer concrete strategies for success, promote collaboration and problem solving, and open up important conversations around taking standardized tests.

Article by Matt Levinson posted on Edutopia at

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