15 Secrets for Improving Reading Scores on Standardized Tests

You’re trying to figure out how to improve reading scores on standardized tests for your elementary students.

You’ve come to the right place.

The topic of standardized testing in elementary schools is not my favorite subject, but I realize they’re not going away anytime soon.

Sometimes the best way to deal with something is to learn how to cope with it the best way possible.

Saying that…

I want to help you improve your students’ standardized reading test scores.

I don’t have a magic potion, but I do have real solutions that actually work!

During my teaching career, the majority of my students did very well on standardized tests.

In fact, in one school in which I taught for four years, my students’ reading and math standardized test scores were among the highest in the elementary.

And not just high in real numbers but in growth, which for me is the most important factor.

I didn’t have the “smart” kids (quite the contrary, I always got “those kids” with defiance and academic issues), and I didn’t have a small class size or some special inside knowledge about the test.

What I had were instructional strategies that I had honed from years of administering those darn standardized tests.

Once I put those strategies into practice consistently and strategically, the results were amazing!

Related: To give your students an even better shot at rocking their standardized tests, check out these other elementary test prep resources.

My Tips for Improving Reading Standardized Test Scores

This article lists the 15 strategies I implemented in order to improve standardized reading test scores of my elementary students (3rd and 4th graders).

I’m hoping that you have some aha moments along the way.

Here’s what you can do to maximize students’ success with reading standardized tests…

1. Review Previous Year Exams.

First things first…

If possible, get your hands on your students reading standardized test scores from the previous year.

Review those scores carefully.

Take note of patterns and trends that are consistent among your learners.

Doing this gives you an idea of which standards they are strong in and those objectives which may require further reinforcement.

Take note of any striking highs or lows, particularly of any individual students.

Previous standardized test scores provide a decent foundation from which to begin planning your literacy block.

The reading objectives that your students didn’t do well in can serve as the target of your mini-lessons for guided reading.

2. Create a Simplified Scope and Sequence.

Conquering standardized testing begins with the mindset that success starts at the beginning of the school year, not a few weeks before the actual exam.

Most schools have a scope and sequence which can be quite long and wordy. It can easily overwhelm, so take those objectives and simplify them.

If you look closely at an upper elementary reading standardized test that focuses on comprehension, it generally tests a combination of the following literacy skills:

  • Cause and Effect
  • Character Traits
  • Compare and Contrast
  • Context Clues
  • Determining Author’s Purpose (Be sure to teach author’s purpose beyond pie.)
  • Drawing Conclusions
  • Fact and Opinion
  • Fiction vs. Nonfiction
  • Figurative vs. Literal Language
  • Finding the main idea
  • Genre Features
  • Inferring
  • Making Connections
  • Making Predictions
  • Meta-Cognitive Strategies (e.g. Visualizing, Monitoring for Meaning, Questioning, etc.)
  • Multiple Meaning Words
  • Point of View
  • Retelling
  • Sequencing
  • Story elements
  • Summarizing

Take the literacy skills that will be tested and schedule them in your plan book, each during a different week.

Some skills need more than a week, so consider that.

This scope and sequence is simply a guide to keep you on track. The goal is to introduce each objective at least once within a certain time frame, say within the first two quarters of the school year.

In addition to introducing the skills, teach the learning objectives to students in different formats.

Take compare and contrast for example.

Everyone teaches the Venn Diagram, which is good, but students may have to compare and contrast in different ways like within a T-chart or simply by retelling the differences.

So it’s a good idea to use a variety of structures.

Take a look at the objectives that will be tested on the standardized test, and strategically plan your lessons around those targeted objectives.

Create a timeline, and give yourself a time frame so that you stay on track!

3.  Spiral Concepts.

Teaching literacy concepts is an ongoing process.

After teaching each skill/strategy, sprinkle it in any lesson wherever it fits naturally.

This is what I call spiraling.

Reading about finding the main idea? Maybe the story also lends itself to multiple-meaning words.

Practicing retelling using a step-by-step article?

That’s a great time to also discuss sequencing!

My students and I were always making connections like this.

I would also spiral concepts during read alouds (think alouds), through literacy centers, and morning meeting.

Morning meeting was the absolutely best!

Just like math corner, I had a language arts corner that we “did” first thing in the morning for about 10 minutes.

I had a pocket chart with 4-6 different literacy-based activities that were quick, strategically skill-focused, and to the point.

It was kind of like an interactive daily oral language.

Everyone gathered on the carpet, and through reciprocal teaching and discussion, we reviewed targeted literacy concepts.

I swapped activities every once and a while, depending on the needs of the class.

The kids really loved language arts morning meeting activity time, and it worked tremendously to reinforce reading standards on a daily basis!

4.  Incorporate Literature Circles and Author Studies.

In my experiences, it has taken about a semester to introduce and target well each literacy objective at least once.

Starting second semester, I begin literature circle groups or author studies with the kids.

Within these groups, reading skills and strategies are covered in-depth through various types of literary genres.

Students participate in reciprocal teaching which is a great way for them to demonstrate their “expertise” to peers.

Having students understand their roles within literature circles shouldn’t be a problem at this point since all skills have already been covered thoroughly.

While students actively participate in these discussion groups, the teacher’s role is one of facilitator – taking anecdotal notes and assisting groups as needed.

This is a great time to observe which skills students are grasping and which need further reinforcement via guided reading.

5.  Teach Using Novel Units.

In lieu of literature circles, novel units are also wonderful to target a variety of reading skills all in one place.

A single chapter hits SO many targeted skills~what great practice for the kids!

It takes a bit of prep to plan activities and lessons around the targeted reading skills with a chapter book, but it’s well worth the time and effort!

To work smarter in order to save time and sanity, my grade-level colleagues and I divided the work and then exchanged activities/lessons.

That worked like a charm!

One of my favorite books to do this with is James and the Giant Peach. It covers so many learning objectives, and students love it!

Choose whichever book meets your objectives and is of interest to your students.

I taught novel units whole group.


I taught the whole class using the same book.

Because we read the text within various formats, high readers were challenged as well as those who struggle a bit.

How did I differentiate?

I met with small groups and one-on-one when needed.

Whole group was also effective in minimizing the stigma that some kids have when it comes to using different leveled books.

No one needed to feel bad for being in the “special reading group”, and stronger readers need not feel weird standing out as reading above grade level.

For these novel units, we all enjoyed the same book.

There were no “harder” or “easier” book choices during this time.

Everyone was successful using the same text, and I differentiated as needed.

I always chose books that lend themselves to variety of reading strategies~especially those that will show up on those reading standardized tests.

Instructing using novel units works best after you’ve taught all reading skills at least a few times.

That’s way I only did these novel units during second semester.

6.  Guide Students in Writing “Growth” Goals.

What good are all of these strategies if there’s no buy-in or input from students?

At the beginning of the school year, I talk to my students about the importance of growing academically.

That doesn’t directly mean standardized testing, but it’s easily applied to this area.

To help them visualize their successes and target their weaknesses, together we created academic goals using simple goal sheets, charts, and graphs.

My fourth and fifth graders had access to their previous year standardized test scores and would make goals based on those results.

Because the focus was on growth and not a standard number, each goal sheet was custom to each child.

From these goals, students knew what areas they needed to focus on in the coming weeks and months.

We revisited and revised our “growth” goals every quarter.

The process of writing and reflecting on these “growth” goals was super powerful, and parents loved the idea!

7.  Encourage Parental Support.

Speaking of parents, their support is a significant piece of the puzzle.

Back-to-School night is your chance to communicate the importance of the standardized exam and to explain the power of working together to help their child achieve their goals.

Through the years, I’ve learned that many parents simply don’t know how to help their kids be successful academically at school.

If this is the case at your school, share specific strategies that parents could use at home to support their child’s reading proficiency and test preparation process.

Parents really appreciate this information, and this gesture also helps them to understand the structure plus importance of scoring well on the reading standardized exam.

Involving parents also discourages too many absences and tardies on the students’ part.

8.  Differentiate Homework.

Based on individual student goals and needs, differentiate homework.

You may think that takes too much time, but with planning, it works very well and is very much appreciated by parents.

Not all students need help with the same concepts.

I had about 4-5 different literacy activities that I gave for homework.

They were similar to literacy centers.

They weren’t the “return the next day” type of homework assignments but rather project-based learning activities that encourage higher-order thinking.

These homework activities/projects targeted a variety of reading skills and encouraged students to review information authentically.

This in turn reinforced skills that would be presented on the reading standardized tests.

9.  Strategize with Anchor Charts.

If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you know how much I love a well-crafted anchor chart when it’s used strategically.

I use these bad boys like crazy to support literacy instruction.

Readers’ and writers’ workshop aren’t complete without a few anchor charts thrown in.

When you have a classroom full of readers who need your attention at almost every second, you’ve got to have some help.

Anchor charts are definitely your co-pilot.

With the right training and guidance, students will use these instructional tools to support their learning.

Though anchor charts aren’t allowed during the actual reading standardized test, they’re like the training wheels students need to get going.

After a while, once they know concepts well enough, they don’t need the charts as much.

10.  Read Books Aloud from Variety of Genres to Create Shared Experiences.

So many of my elementary learners had limited life experiences, and books were a way to bridge those gaps.

You never know what scenarios the stories within the standardized tests will cover, so exposing students to a variety of experiences helps.

Don’t live in a climate where it snows?

No problem, books can help you with that!

A cultural difference that’s unique to a certain region of the U.S?

Books can help with that, too!

Once I was reading with a student, and one of the reading comprehension questions was…

“As the plane began to climb higher and higher, why did the main character say the buildings started to look like ants?”

The student was baffled.

But what a great teachable moment!

He had never traveled on an airplane and consequently had a hard time making the connection.

In another situation, a student asked the meaning of bumper sticker.

The term was very relevant to the main idea of the story, so again, another teachable moment.

As educators, we can’t control what experiences our students have outside of school, but we can bring parts of the world to them through books!

These shared experiences increase their schema and prior knowledge which are essential for higher-level reading comprehension.

Books do a beautiful job of creating and expanding experiences for children, and this is so important for kids with limited cultural and life experiences outside of school.

11.  Use Test-Targeted Instructional Strategies.

In addition to the aforementioned strategies, I used two test-targeted instructional strategies that are ‘DA BOMB!

They are fabulous and really work to help your students tackle test questions like a pro!

The Prove It reading strategy encourages learners to defend their responses to comprehension questions and statements with specific evidence from the text or prior knowledge.

Additionally, students mastering the Question-Answer Relationship (QAR) method method is equally powerful and helps them answer questions based  on the complexity of the question.

The Prove It reading strategy and QAR method will help your elementary test-takers CRUSH the reading standardized tests!

12.  Design Bulletin Boards Around Learning Objectives.

Strategically use bulletin boards as learning tools to highlight important reading concepts.

I used every single one of my boards to reflect a reading concept (or whichever objective I was targeting).

And the best part is that all of them were student-designed!

13.  Give Constructive Feedback.

For formal classroom assessments, I always wrote detailed feedback to students.

The students looked forward to the feedback.

It helped them to see the areas in which they were soaring (yeah!) plus target areas for improvement.

Constructive feedback encourages students to self-reflect on what they are doing well and what they need to improve.

This feedback also serves as anecdotal evidence that you can potentially use when drafting your quarterly report card comments.

14.  Review Test Format.

At some point before the test is administered, it’s a good idea to review the format of the test with students.

This saves time during the actual exam because then they don’t have to use needed time trying to figure out the structure of the exam.

This step is especially important for grade levels with students who are being formally tested using standardized exams for the very first time, usually 3rd grade.

Older students will already have an idea of what to expect.

15.  Deliver Good ‘Ole Fashioned Instruction.

Even with all of these strategies, nothing beats good instruction.

What’s “good” is subjective, but as long as you’re giving your best, don’t stress it.

Your best has to be enough!

And this goes for the kids, too.

As long as they are giving their very best, that’s enough.

Wrapping Up: How To Improve Reading Scores on Standardized Tests.

This article has got you covered!

Boosting standardized reading test scores of elementary students is no small feat, but it can be done.

These strategies helped my students rock the test, and I’m sure they’ll benefit your kiddos, too.

Happy teaching and learning