In the popular imagination, testing season in American public schools is a time of anxiety, tension, and boredom for students and teachers alike; a time when learning stops and “drill and kill” test prep begins. But if you had walked into my classroom this time last year, you’d have witnessed something a bit different: A small group of students giggling over biology charades, a different group creating a Smartboard quiz game about weather systems to share with the class, and yet another conducting a review experiment on the conservation of mass.

We were busily readying ourselves for the North Carolina 5th Grade Science End-of-Grade assessment, but the mood was far from somber. My students had worked hard all year, and they were invested in showing off that hard work on test day. I took for granted the importance of giving my students an opportunity to study for their exams, just as I had always given myself time to review before any big test I took in school. Far from anxious, tense, or bored, the energy in my classroom during testing season was urgent, calm, and engaged.

So when I left my rural, Southern school and made my way to Washington, I was surprised by how little the popular debate about test prep reflected the lived experience of my classroom. During a recent think tank event on summative testing, I heard panelists and report authors lament the amount of time spent on test preparation, and urge states to adopt top-down policy measures to limit the time teachers can spend helping students study for their exams. As an educator, I balked at the idea of anyone limiting my autonomy to prepare my students, and I wondered—would other teachers feel the same?

A new report from TeachPlus, an organization that strives to increase educator voice in education policy, sheds some light on teachers’ perception and use of test preparation. Results suggest that while I might not be in the majority, I do have significant company: 43 percent of teachers surveyed in the report did not feel that they spent too much time preparing students for tests. Compared to the 57 percent of teachers reporting that they spent too much time on test prep, authors found that those with more favorable attitudes shared several distinct characteristics: aligned assessments, autonomy in instructional strategy, and activities they believed were valuable to student learning.

First, a key predictor of teachers’ belief that test-prep was time well-spent was whether or not they believed the assessment they were preparing students for—be it a district or statewide exam—was aligned to their curriculum. In other words, if teachers take time out of packed instructional schedules to prepare students for a test, it should reflect what students have been learning in class. An aligned assessment is an opportunity to give students and teachers meaningful feedback about their progress and to give students an opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge (which cognitive science suggests further helps them retain that information). On the flip side, when teachers are asked to take time away from teaching their instructional standards to drill students on content for a test that doesn’t reflect what they’ve been learning all year, investing them in the worth of that exercise is understandably a challenge.

Further, teachers who reported spending the right amount of time preparing students for tests were much more likely to also report that they had significant autonomy in how they chose to prepare their students. This might mean having the freedom to select instructional materials and strategies, or budget time for review before an assessment. When teachers had these flexibilities, they were much more likely to say that they had spent the appropriate amount of time preparing students for assessments. For districts and schools that take a hands-on approach to test-prep, it is worth considering adopting a less top-down approach, and giving educators more flexibility to meet the unique needs of their classrooms.

Similarly, teachers were also more likely to rate test prep time as valuable when they believed the activities selected (whether they selected them or not) were worthwhile and valuable. So even if schools and districts continue to provide teachers with test prep materials, instructional strategies, or timelines, soliciting teachers’ feedback on how well those supports are truly meeting their needs could improve their perception of these resources.

Surprisingly, one characteristic that did not impact teachers’ perceptions was the actual amount of time spent preparing students for exams. Authors found no relationship between the number of hours teachers spent preparing students for tests and their reported satisfaction with that time—one teacher might report spending 23 hours on test prep and say that he believed it was the appropriate amount of time to spend, while another might take only six hours and still say it had been excessive. Instead, satisfaction was related to both the assessments students were preparing for and the tools teachers had at their disposal to help them.

These findings suggest that opportunities exist to revisit the quality of district and state assessments, and to engage teachers around what they really need to help students succeed on test day. Rather than using top-down policy levers to limit time spent preparing for tests, policy leaders could learn a few things from the experiences of teachers who were satisfied with their current test-preparation regime in order to make test preparation more meaningful for all involved.

My very first class of 5th grade science students are approaching their next big statewide science assessment, the North Carolina eighth grade science End-of-Grade assessment. As always, I’m rooting for their success, and have the utmost confidence that they will do well. Their success will be predicated on their own hard work, but also on the hard work of their science teacher. It only seems fair that their teacher should have the same freedoms that I had the last time this group of students took the statewide science test: choice and voice in how to prepare them.

Abigail Swisher

Abigail Swisher is a program associate with New America’s Education Policy Program. Prior to joining New America, Abigail taught elementary school in North Carolina. Abigail holds a certificate in Middle Grades Education through East Carolina University and a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology from Goucher College.