Their desks were cleared, their pencils sharpened, but the middle school students at Manhattan’s East Side Community School had one more pre-test ritual to complete before launching into the state English exams Tuesday morning. They had to slap on “Super Smart Smiley Unstuck Stickers.”

Principal Mark Federman passed out the bright smiley-face stickers before the test, explaining to students that they need only smile if they get stuck during the test and the stickers will unleash their “inner smartness.” But, he warned, excessive use may make students as smart as teachers.

“Every day I come up with a different shtick,” Federman said. “The idea is to get them to relax and realize: This is important, but it’s going to be OK.”

From classroom yoga to multi-school rallies, educators have found creative ways to balance this year’s test prep with test pep.

Despite pleas from the new schools chancellor to tamp down on test preparation, some schools have spent weeks administering practice exams and reviewing test-taking strategies ahead of the state English exams for grades three through eight, which continue through Thursday. (The state math tests start at the end of the month.) Other schools, convinced that the best preparation for the tests is standards-aligned instruction, kept test prep to a minimum.

After last year’s exams — the first tied to the more rigorous Common Core standards, when far fewer students passed than in previous years — educators said they have mixed feelings heading into the latest round of Common Core tests.

But, those same educators told Chalkbeat, all want their students to succeed on the tests — and most have well-honed test-week strategies to try to make that happen.

Federman with the test-anxiety-reducing stickers he passed out to students.
Federman with the test-anxiety-reducing stickers he passed out to students.
PHOTO CREDIT: East Side Community School

Students at Highbridge Green School in the Bronx do yoga before the exams, as well as meditation exercises taught by a science teacher with a background in neuroscience, said English teacher Anna Staab.

“For some of my kids,” she said, “that self-soothing and self-regulation is almost as important as anything else they could do during test time.”

Other schools prefer to psych students up rather than cool them down.

At I.S. 131 in the Bronx, that has meant pep rallies, daily pre-test countdowns, and bagel breakfasts on test days.

Last week, some 2,300 students from 22 Success Academy charter schools converged for a massive “Slam the Exam” rally. But even before that, students won basketballs and other coveted prizes for focusing on practice tests, and teachers were rewarded with new Converse sneakers for their test-prep instruction, according to a current Success teacher who asked for anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak to the press. During test week, the network is paying for teachers to take early-morning cabs to the homes of students with a history of tardiness and shepherd them to school, the teacher added.

At Brooklyn’s M.S. 447, the reward for diligent test prep was Chinese food for lunch Monday, which students could win with raffle tickets.

At Brooklyn’s P.S. 10, intercoms will be blasting the anxiety-melting pop song, “Happy,” as well as the school cheer, said principal Laura Scott. Inside classrooms, teachers will dutifully deliver test-day jokes, which the school says are both soothing and stimulating.

“The kids are relaxed now, laughing their heads off,” Scott explained. “But at the same time, they’re trying to think about what the answer is.”

Students at the Lower Manhattan Middle School boosted one another before the exam. One class made pencil-and-candy-filled “Good Luck Baskets” for their peers, while another posted positive messages on their classroom door.

But the school tries not to go overboard as it gears up for the exams, said principal Kelly McGuire.

“Our general thought,” he said, “is that if we’re teaching good stuff all year, then the kids should do well on the tests.”

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