March 25, 2015

Coping during test week: What testing feels like and how to help

Every year, when testing season arrives, students’ nerves reach an all-time high. For many reasons, standardized testing is scary, physically exhausting, and mentally strenuous for even the most resilient students, especially on top of their regular schoolwork. Depending on the student, their teachers, and the circumstances of the testing itself, students may face any number of factors working against them. Diane Ravitch, a blogger on all things education, has said, “Sometimes, the most brilliant and intelligent minds do not shine on standardized tests because they do not have standardized minds.” Standardized testing may not showcase the wonderful thinker who isn’t the best test-taker. Standardized testing may also prove challenging for students with executive functioning difficulties, with increased anxiety, or students who are simply having a bad day.

So it is ever more important to be able to empathize with our children and provide them the right support during test week. When students go through testing year after year, it can start to seem commonplace, even easy. However, three adults took it upon themselves to uncover the true challenges of “a day in the life of a student,” and, particularly, the ordeal that is standardized testing.

  1. Jason Stanford, an investigative journalist, responded to a Texas 6th grader’s challenge to state lawmakers to “Sit in a room for up to four hours, without talking, writing, drawing, reading, or using your cell phone.” He took her challenge a step further, and actually completed a 4th grade English Language Arts practice test. He reported that, “In no way whatsoever was I able to quietly sit still for that long,” and that “It wasso boring I had to make blinders of my hands to force myself to focus on the text.” Even some of the questions “puzzled a middle-aged columnist,” which made him wonder what effect they might have on a 9-year-old. For a highly educated and successful adult, the mechanics and physical demands of the test proved difficult.
  2. Colorado state senator, Jerry Sonnenberg, took the PARCC in early March and found the overall experience alarming: “I was shocked that even though I chose the correct answers, I lost almost half my score because I didn’t ‘show my work’ the way that PARCC requires in their grading rubrics.” He also “had some trouble understanding how to maneuver within the software and was told that a teacher cannot help during the testing.” Without help or an easily understood computer platform, students can feel lost and unable to produce their best work, even when their knowledge is sound.
  3. Alexis Wiggins, a 15-year teaching veteran, spent two full days shadowing the daily routines 10th and 12th grade students and found herself equally shocked. She said the experience “was so eye-opening that [she wishes she] could go back to every class of students [she] ever had right now and change a minimum of ten things.” Her “key takeaway” was that students never have enough opportunity to move: “I could not believe how tired I was after the first day. I literally sat down the entire day…By the end of the day, I could not stop yawning and I was desperate to move or stretch…it took a lot of conscious effort for me not to get up and start doing jumping jacks in the middle of Science just to keep my mind and body from slipping into oblivion after so many hours of sitting passively.”


Reminders Your Child Needs to Hear:

With all these difficulties — exhaustion, confusion, lack of movement, and minimal tech support — your children may be feeling defeated even before they start their exams. However, with the right messages and pep talks at home, they can go into test day feeling optimistic and proud of their achievements. Try to have these conversations with your children before or even during test week; it’s important for your children to know that their parents are behind them 100%, even if they have an uphill battle ahead.

Before the test:

  1. “You are not your test score”: Often, children need help differentiating their academic achievement from their overall self-worth. They think that their grades, particularly on important exams, reflect intimate qualities of their identity, like their intelligence, work-ethic, common sense, or personality. But, test scores often indicate only what a student was able to produce on the one day they took the test, not what they can do over the course of their semester, nor who they are as a person.
  2. “It’s normal and it’s okay to struggle”: Putting the test in perspective is one of the most important things you can do for your child before they step into the classroom on exam day. They need to know that they are not alone when they struggle to sit still, focus, or navigate the software. Everyone is having the same trouble, and they are neither wrong, unintelligent, nor failures if they struggle, too.
  3. “It’s just a test. It will not define who you are or determine what kind of a student you’ll be.” With the amount of pressure placed on students during testing, it’s easy to believe that one test could determine your child’s whole future. But, to help your child succeed, it’s important to eliminate this extra anxiety, and, again, to keep things in perspective. Show your student that their test will not dictate their future, that they are capable in their own unique ways, and that they have every ability to succeed on the test anyway.
  4. “The purpose of the exam is not to punish you. It’s to gain information about your progress, help you become a better student, and help your teachers learn, too.” When students understand the purpose of standardized testing, they are less likely to take the exam personally or fear failure. Help them understand that they aren’t supposed to know every answer. Encourage your children to always try their best, but remind them that the test is meant to help educators learn how to teach even better.
  5. “Aim for your personal best, and don’t worry about anyone else.” One of the toughest testing hurdles for children is overcoming competitive pressures. Students get caught up in percentile rankings of anonymous “others,” which puts even more pressure on them to succeed or out-rank their classmates. But when your children block out the cultural dialogue of competition that accompanies testing, they free themselves to focus only on their personal best. Then, they can feel confident that they showed up to test day and gave it their all.

After the test:

  1. “I’m so proud of the way you worked so hard all year to get ready for this. Those times you had to struggle really paid off.” Praising your child’s behaviors, not their score or statistical achievements, helps children to realize that their day-in, day-out work ethic is more important than the test itself. It will also promote similar habits in the future, showing them that their successes have come from their ongoing commitment to their education.
  2. “This success really tells me that you stayed focused for the entire exam and I know that’s hard to do.”  Showing your student that you empathize with what they have gone through, the difficulty of focusing, sitting, staying quiet, and completing difficult work, will help them to rationalize the experience as a positive learning experience, rather than a tortuous memory they hope to forget.
  3. “Are you happy with your performance? What would you have done differently to get ready for it?” Always give your child a voice in their experience, and listen to what they have to say about the test, even if they just need to vent. Like the 6th grader who challenged law-makers, most students readily recognize the difficulties of the exam and have plenty to say about it. However, when you ask the right questions to help your child reflect on both the positives and negatives of their experience, they can make better plans for the next time exam week comes around.

When you have all of these important conversations with your child, you show that they themselves are important, smart, capable, and ready to take on whatever the test throws their way. You may even decide to take a practice test yourself to show your child that you are in this together no matter what!