3 Easy Ways to Help Your Teen Score Higher on a Math Test

by | Mar 14, 2017

My frustrated student tosses her math test on my desk. I sense she’s fighting back tears, but I don’t make eye contact as I know the tears will bubble over onto her cheeks. Scanning down the page, I look at the marks the teacher has left in red.

It’s not that she can’t do the math, not at all. She’s omitting small items that lead to points lost which bring decent math test grades down.  She needs just a few math test tips to help improve her grade.

These details seem unimportant to many students, but teachers know that they are essential to learning math. Here is the standard that many teachers are using to guide marking of these errors.


Attend to precision.
Mathematically proficient students try to communicate precisely to others. They try to use clear definitions in discussion with others and in their own reasoning. They state the meaning of the symbols they choose, including using the equal sign consistently and appropriately. They are careful about specifying units of measure, and labeling axes to clarify the correspondence with quantities in a problem. They calculate accurately and efficiently, express numerical answers with a degree of precision appropriate for the problem context. In the elementary grades, students give carefully formulated explanations to each other. By the time they reach high school they have learned to examine claims and make explicit use of definitions.

And right then…I felt like I just got word vomited on.

How about you?

To help me see it, I’m going to break into a list of skills:

Communicate precisely to others

  • Can they use the language of math to defend their thinking?
  • Know why they chose the symbols
  • Do they use the equal sign correctly?

Label appropriately

  • Can use the correct units of measures?
  • Label diagrams?


  • Can they do them fast and correctly?

These skills teach the student to examine numbers or claims and decide if the conclusions others come to are indeed correct.

Sounds like a life skill that translates into other areas as well.

Consequences of Ignoring the Details

Once at a math conference, a presenter showed the implications of not being able to look at someone else’s conclusions and identify false information.

He cited an article stating most of the population was in favor of a levy. But when looking at the data and graph, it was skewed. The scale of the graph looked much more dramatic when in fact, the actual numbers were 54 in favor and 46 against. That’s hardly a majority. That’s closer to an even split!

Math teaches us to pay attention to important details. A life skill we all need.

3 Easy Math Test Skills that Increase Scores

#1 – Understanding Directions:

Many students will gloss over the directions at the top of the problem. Teach your child to read the directions and underline the task, even for a set of similar problems.

My son recently did this on a homework assignment. His teacher circled the part of the instructions that he missed. An important detail for sure!

Teach your child to watch for the details in math. Underline important parts of the directions or problem. For more test taking tips, head to mathformiddles.com/math-test-tips/

Instructions DO matter.

For word problems, I teach my students the 3 Read Approach. Let me show you how it works with this problem below.

Practice math test skills. mathformiddles.com/math-test-tips

Step 1: Read and Get Rid of Distractions

Wow, first thing going through my head…why does this guy need 102 watermelons?  Remember the math watermelon memes?


Actual watermelon math problem that you can solve! mathformiddles.com/math-test-tips

He exists!


Second, how in the world do I even say Javier?

Step 2: Read and Rename

I have my students change names that they can’t pronounce to names that they know. Many of them pick friends.

Then we rename words or definitions if they don’t know what they are. An example of this would be to change out maximum and capacity for most weight. Explain why and find the definitions together.

Practice math test skills. mathformiddles.com/math-test-tips

Step 3: Read and Underline Details

Finally, we underline what we’re solving here.

  • Is there more than one question that needs to be answered?
  • What operations am I doing?

Practice math test skills. mathformiddles.com/math-test-tips

#2 – Labeling Units:

Kara shared with me that when she catches her students forgetting details like labeling units, she will ask, “What unit is it? Monkeys squared?”

This question is brain sticky and helps a student grasp a visual reminder.  The square shape of the monkey connects area to the units.  Of course, it isn’t monkeys squared!

Practice math test skills. mathformiddles.com/math-test-tips

Watch out for squared monkeys!

#3 – Understanding the Language of Math

Math is real life and word problems are used to help students gain understanding in applying math to everyday situations. Often students will skim over a word or feel lost because they do not know the equivalence of the word to the math operation.

Practicing looking for the operations inside of word problems helps students identify what they need to do to solve the problem.

Here is a list of keywords that you see often in problems.


  • sum
  • and
  • total
  • altogether


  • product
  • each
  • multiplied


  • less than
  • remain
  • fewer
  • how many more


  • each
  • per
  • divided
  • of


  • is
  • has

For my students, I have a math problem checklist that they can tuck into the front of a binder to help them remember the details.

I know this checklist can keep tears from even having a chance to bubble over about the next test.

You can download a copy for your teen here below.

Adrianne Meldrum

Adrianne Meldrum

Owner of Math for Middles

I’m the owner and creator of the math videos here at Math for Middles.  I’ve tutored students for over ten years.  When I am not creating here, you’ll find me down by the river with my family.  You can read more about me here and how I once was a middle schooler too.

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