Standing Up to Testing: The Scoop on Statewide Exams

Rethinking the System

Protestor?s sign Statewide exams put big
pressure on little kids.

None of this is to suggest that students shouldn't be tested. Most educators agree that the information gleaned from assessments can help kids receive a better education. "If the majority of my students miss an area on a math exam, I would focus on different ways to teach that skill for next year," says Debra Young, a third-grade teacher at John M. Barnes Elementary School, in Flat Rock, Michigan.

Not all schools take advantage of this learning opportunity, though, and a good number are paying a steep price for NCLB. Many districts have scaled back the overall curriculum so they can "teach to the test." A study by the Center on Education Policy found that since the law's implementation, more than 60 percent of districts have increased the instruction time for math and English while 44 percent report that they allot fewer hours toward history, science, art, and physical education (which are not measured on standardized tests). "Many principals in our district tell us not to worry about social studies and science until after the standardized tests are over," says an elementary-school teacher in Oak Harbor, Washington. "Well, they're in May. So that gives us only three to four weeks to teach these subjects."

The proliferation of tests also gives kids fewer opportunities to develop the creative-thinking skills that they'll need to succeed in the long term. "Learning to ask questions is just as important as learning to answer them," says Yong Zhao, Ph.D., associate dean for global education at the University of Oregon, in Eugene.

The fact that teachers, schools, and the DOE all agree that the current approach to standardized exams is problematic should lead to some structural changes in the years ahead, predicts Andy Rotherham, cofounder of Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit education-consulting organization in Washington, D.C. Indeed, 46 states and the District of Columbia have voluntarily adopted and are implementing the Common Core standards that establish what students should know and be able to do in each grade. There will be new assessments aligned to these universal standards, with national tests replacing statewide ones as early as the 2014-15 school year. Although nothing has been determined yet, the proposed exams in English language arts and mathematics would be broader based and might include a writing assessment, an auditory component that measures listening skills, and real-world projects and research. Plus, the results would be delivered within weeks rather than months, providing valuable feedback for teachers and parents.

But this possible revamp is unlikely to resolve the narrowed curriculum and the temptation for districts to add benchmark tests to help students prepare. So in the meantime, it's your job to let teachers, administrators, and representatives know how these tests are affecting your school and, even more important, to adopt the following strategies to ensure that your child can thrive in our current testing culture.

Hone skills, not scores If your child is on track with what's being taught in the classroom, there's no need to do practice tests at home. In general, good preparation for state tests includes many things you probably do anyway: reading aloud with your child, encouraging her to do crossword puzzles, playing games that involve computation, and using math for everyday purposes such as adding up prices on a shopping trip.

Get your child relaxed and ready Make sure he gets enough sleep the night before and eats a protein-rich breakfast that will enable him to stay focused all morning. If he seems anxious, give him a pep talk reminding him to take deep calming breaths and read each question carefully before answering. You might also put a note in his backpack wishing him good luck.

Have her teacher interpret scores There is valuable information in the test results beyond how your child stacks up relative to others, including how she performed on the different sections of the exam. Knowing how she did in the vocabulary or reading-comprehension sections, for instance, will help you understand where she's excelling or struggling so you can support her learning more effectively.

Appreciate effort, not results "If your child scores near the top on a test, don't praise his intelligence, since that won't encourage him to keep working hard," says Carol Dweck, Ph.D., author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Instead, compliment the strategies he used, his focus, and his progress. If he doesn't perform well, don't comfort him by saying, "I'm not a math person, either." This will only convince him that he'll never be good at the subject. A more effective strategy is to say something like, "You haven't mastered these skills yet. That's okay. They take time and practice to learn."

Know when to worry A statewide test is just one data point in a lifetime of academic markers. If your child does worse than expected, it's premature to panic. If her scores continue to lag over time, though, you should ask to meet with her teacher. By looking at a range of factors -- homework, quizzes, and class participation -- you can decide whether she's truly falling behind or merely struggling with the pressure of taking standardized exams.

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