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Assessment Downtime: What to Do Before and After Mandated Testing

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The month of May might be associated with springtime for most people, but for teachers, it also means that testing season is upon us. During these last weeks of school, routine instruction is often moved aside to complete mandated assessments. While special schedules are developed in each school building so that students have ample opportunity to complete their assessments, there are often large blocks of time that emerge and that are unfilled and unplanned, resulting in a lot of downtime and boredom. How can teachers use these unforeseen moments to engage students without the use of digital devices, which are often unavailable during testing? Here are some technology-free ideas for ways to keep students happily occupied when lag time occurs.

Secret Password

To play this game, students split into two teams. The teacher plays the role of “Word Expert” and comes up with a new word for each round of the game. To begin, one student from each team comes to the front of the room. Without revealing the word to the two kids up front, the teacher shows it to all team members. Then, the first team prompts their teammate in the “hot seat” to guess the word by providing a single-word clue, and then the next team does the same. For example, if the word is “tree,” the first team might give the clue, “leaves.” If their teammate guesses “plant,” then the next team provides a one-word clue like “trunk.” Both teams take turns cueing their representative in the hot seat until one of them guesses correctly. Whoever gets the word right first wins the round, and the game can go on for as many rounds as desired. Certain rules can be added in the older grades to make the game more challenging, like prohibiting the use of gesturing or rhyming. As the class plays this modified version of Taboo, everyone is engaged and collaborative. The best part is that the game can fill a timespan of anywhere between a few minutes to nearly an hour. 

Story Starters

In this activity, students write the introduction to a story with just a few sentences on a slip of paper. The teacher puts these “story starters” into a box or a bin, and then students select someone else’s slip of paper at random. Once everyone has a story starter, the class might spend anywhere from 10-20 minutes (depending on the time available) writing a short version of the story they drew. The stories do not need to be finished products when the writing time is over; the exercise is more about appreciating the process. When it’s time to share, students can either request to hear the story that they started or volunteer to read the one they wound up writing. Either way, the class will enjoy hearing what happened with all the different story starters.


This game is like a written version of “Telephone.” At the top of a sheet of notebook paper or similar, students write their names and a quick simple sentence, something akin to “The dog cried in the rain.” Then, everyone passes their papers in a pre-designated direction. Directly underneath the sentence, the teacher asks students to draw a small picture that visually depicts the sentence. It’s important to point out that this is not the time to be a great artist: the goal is clarity, so stick figures are just fine. Then, all students fold the paper they’re working on so that only the picture is visible. They pass the papers again, and this time, everyone sees only a picture. Students write a sentence underneath the picture to describe what they are seeing and fold the picture over so that only the sentence is visible. When the papers are passed again, students continue to alternate either writing a sentence or drawing a picture to communicate what they have just seen before they fold it over. 

At the very end of the activity (often when both the front and back of the paper is full), everyone can return the paper in their hands to its original owner. When students look over the original sentence they wrote and see all the subsequent pictures and sentences, they will be both amazed and extremely tickled at the silly evolution of their original ideas. Students often eagerly volunteer to share their first and last sentences, which everyone will appreciate because the results are almost always hilarious.


Writing amusing jokes is hard to do in a short period of time. Instead, encourage students to work together in small groups to write so-called “Anti-Jokes,” which are designed to be anticlimactic or nonsensical and are therefore funny in a silly way. They can use common joke formats (such as a knock-knock setup) to create a product, or they could write a short a narrative anti-joke that includes a silly, aimless story. Teachers should probably remind everyone to keep the content appropriate and non-offensive, just to be sure the exercise remains fun for all involved. When students are done writing together, groups take turns sharing. If time permits, students might also be willing to tell some jokes they already know that are school-approved, just to get everyone laughing before or after a stressful assessment.

Ghost Lyric Contest

Writing songs is hardly the work of a moment, but taking a melody that already exists and providing a new lyric (i.e., a “ghost” lyric) is much more doable. For younger students, using a simple tune like “Happy Birthday to You” or “Mary Had a Little Lamb” is advisable, whereas older students (middle school and above) can pick songs from pop culture to work with. In the secondary grades, once the class has selected a song, groups proceed to write new lyrics and then perform or share them. It might even become a mock reality competition, with different groups vying for a prize or title. For younger kids, the whole class may work together with the teacher to make a new song lyric, maybe based on a theme everyone likes. The important thing is that the exercise is collaborative and enjoyable, and that it takes some of the pressure off a difficult week sitting in testing.

All these activities can be adjusted for the appropriate grade level, require materials that are found in any average classroom, and have the potential to create lots of happy end-of-year memories. True, testing is usually a trial, but teachers and students can still find ways to connect when those unscheduled lags creep into a day full of assessments. Above all, it helps to remember that May might come with tests, but it also comes with flowers. The end of the year is nigh, so hanging in there (and having a good time wherever we can) will make all the difference.

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Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam Plotinsky is an instructional specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has taught and led for more than 20 years. She is the author of Teach More, Hover Less and is also a National Board-Certified Teacher with additional certification in administration and supervision. She can be reached at or via Twitter: @MirPloMCPS.

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