There’s your kid, running flat-out down the basketball court, dribbling the ball like a pro. She’s gotten the rebound and is headed back to lay it up for a quick two. She’s up, and the ball effortlessly leaves her hands, pegs the center of the backboard and swishes perfectly into the hoop. As she hustles back to the other side of the court, she grins in your direction, and the mom sitting to your left tells you that your daughter is a natural. You smile, because you know the truth: She’s not. You’ve just taught her how to play the game.

Although scoring well on a standardized test is not going to bring a gymnasium full of people to their feet, it’ll certainly impact your kid’s confidence the way nailing a shot during a basketball game will. And just like a sport, your child needs to learn how to play the game before the big day arrives. You’d never send your daughter out for her first basketball game without first showing her how to pivot, post up or pass! Believe it or not, testing is the same. Prepping your kid on testing strategies before she sits in that desk is just as important as teaching her the content of the exam.

In some ways, it’s even more important.

So, let’s drill! Here are eight strategies kids can use to score higher on those pesky standardized tests that seem to creep up every year.

Strategies 1 and 2

Most standardized tests are multiple-choice exams. That means your child will be given a question and will have to select the best answer from four or five choices.

Here’s an example, taken from the Stanford Achievement Test (SAT-10), which is a national standardized exam often given to students from kindergarten through high school in 13 different levels. This question comes from level 3:

Claudia enjoys cerebral activities such as playing chess, reading books and writing poetry. Cerebral means …

  1. vigorous
  2. artistic
  3. intellectual
  4. foolish

Typically, if a child hasn’t been taught testing strategy, he will read the question, then read all four answer choices to see if one of those would work. If he doesn’t know or gets confused, he’ll randomly guess.

There’s a better way:

  1. Cover the answers: Before reading a question (that does not include an accompanying reading passage or math problem), your child should put his hand over the answer choices. When he reads the question, he should try to answer it in his head before even peeking at the possible answers. In many cases, he’ll come up with a semblance of a correct response. Then, all he has to do is match his answer to the closest choice when he moves his hand.
  2. Switch the word: On a question like the one above, where he needs to figure out the meaning of a word, try replacing the underlined word with a different word that would work in the sentence. Then he can uncover the answers and see if he has a match.

If a child used these two strategies in the question above, he could have selected words like smart or brainy to put in place of cerebral. Then, when he uncovered the four choices, he would have seen that both choices B and D are very different than his words. He could then have ruled those two out. Then, he’d probably look at choice C and determine that it’s a pretty good synonym of smart and brainy, so it had to be the correct choice. He did it all without ever knowing the definition of the word cerebral!

Strategies 3 and 4

Here’s another sample question and some strategies to master it. This one is taken from California’s Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) exam. It’s appropriate for grade 5, and the content is earth science:

The largest body in our solar system is:

  1. Earth
  2. the sun
  3. Jupiter
  4. the moon

You’d think with a question like this that the child either knows the answer or doesn’t. That isn’t quite true. If she can eliminate at least a couple answer choices, she’ll up her odds of getting the answer correct. Higher odds = higher score.

  1. Get rid of answers: On a multiple-choice exam, test writers include the correct or best answer and three or four distracters. Your child must aim to eliminate at least two of the distracters before selecting the answer. Guessing without getting rid of choices means she’ll have a 1-out-of-4 shot of getting it correct. Crossing off two answer choices means she’ll have a 1-out-of-2 shot of getting points for the question.
  2. Use your pencil: Your child should use her pencil to physically cross off those incorrect choices. That way, when she’s reviewing her exam, she won’t be tempted to reconsider choice B if she has already crossed it off.

If a student used these two strategies with the question above, she could cross off choices A and D right away, because most kids in fifth grade will know that the moon is smaller than Earth, and Earth is smaller than Jupiter, since Jupiter is the largest planet in the solar system. Kids might get tripped up determining if the sun or Jupiter is larger, but even if they do, they’ll have a 50-50 shot at guessing correctly with two choices off the table.

Strategies 5, 6 and 7

Many people believe that guessing is always a great option on an exam. “If you don’t know, then at least try to answer it. Guess, at least!” In some cases this is true, but there are rules that accompany this phenomenon of test-taking, and they must be adhered to.

  1. If there’s no penalty, guess: On some standardized tests, you’re docked points or a percentage of a point if you answer a question incorrectly. On other tests, you can get a penalty for leaving a question blank. Your child’s first order of business before testing should be to figure out what kinds of penalties, if any, are enforced for guessing or leaving answers blank. Then she should guess accordingly.
  2. Choose a guessing letter: Before your child even opens the exam, she should decide which of the four or five answer choice letters is her favorite and promise herself that if she is stuck between two answer choices, or has 10 questions left at the end of the exam and only five seconds left to answer them, she’ll choose only that letter. There is some truth to the whole “guess C if you don’t know” rumor, although the letter itself is arbitrary. As long as your child sticks to the same letter and it isn’t one of the choices she’s ruled out, her odds of guessing correctly at least part of the time will improve. If she guesses random letters, she’ll increase her odds of missing the correct answer each time.

With these testing strategies, however, she should never be left staring at several questions near the end of the exam with only five seconds left to answer. Why? Because she’ll have used this strategy:

  1. Pace yourself: Before your child takes the test, do a little bit of math first. Go to the test’s main website, determine how many questions will be asked in what sort of time frame, and give your child an estimate of how much time she should spend for each question. If she has 30 questions to answer in 35 minutes, she’ll have roughly one minute and seventeen seconds per question, so spending six minutes struggling to answer a difficult question won’t make sense. If she gets to a point where she’s nearing her time limit per question but she still doesn’t know the answer, she should circle the question and move on. She can come back to it later.

Strategy 8

Did you know that every standardized exam has both basic and advanced questions? It’s true! And unfortunately, the difficult ones on most tests will not earn your child any more points than the basic questions.

Take, for instance, the question below. It was taken from the same STAR exam for fifth-graders as the earlier one about the largest body in the solar system:

Which of the following best explains how stems transport water to other parts of the plant?

  1. through a chemical called chlorophyll
  2. by using photosynthesis
  3. through a system of tubes
  4. by converting water to food

This question is obviously more advanced than the other, and since it wouldn’t earn a fifth-grader any more points than the more basic question, the student should rely on this strategy before deciding to answer:

  1. Skip when you’re stuck: Your child should skip* any question that seems difficult, then come back to it after he’s answered every question that seems easy. The goal is to get as many points as he can right up front. Who knows? He may end up with a stomachache or itchy eyes or something and struggle with the last portion of the exam, so getting as many points as quickly as possible is key.