How to Make Testing Student-Friendly
I remember walking into my class in elementary school, looking around the room, and thinking, “Huh, I guess we are testing today.”
I didn’t remember anyone telling us it would be testing. My parents and teachers didn’t always remind me to do my best – or that if I didn’t do well, I might fail. It was just like any other school day.
Contrast that with the average classroom today. Students are continually taking benchmark and standardized-tests. At a minimum, a few days in each marking period are lost to testing.
Also, students are constantly reminded of the test. “You need to know this for the test.” “Pay attention, because you have to pass the test.” “Be sure to be here, because we are testing.”
Whether or not administrators and teachers mean to emphasize the test, the “test” has become the center of education. Administrators and teachers feel the stress of the test and that stress is inadvertently passed on to the students.
Unfortunately, well-meaning parents can also build “testing stress.” Parents worry their students won’t perform well, and their education will be affected by it. They push students to do well, grill them about testing, and unconsciously put pressure on their students.
As adults, we have to make a collective effort to stop stressing out kids over-testing.
Why Stress is Bad for Testing
The brain has different lobes or parts, and scientists think each piece has a particular function and that these lobes work together. The amygdala is part of the temporal lobe, and scientists believe it controls the “fight or flight” reflex.
When the brain perceives a threat to be strong, the amygdala takes over and shuts off the part of the brain responsible for rational decisions.
In other words, if a student is stressed out about testing, the brain may go into fight or flight. At that point, the student cannot do well on the test because the brain is focused on dealing with the threat.
The one million reminders we give students to do their best on the test might actually cause them to perform worse.
How Can We Make Standardized Testing Student-Friendly?
There are several simple things teachers and parents can do to make testing better for students. (We cannot control how much they are tested unless you can opt-out. I want to focus on what is in our power to do to help students.)
1. Explain to Students the Purpose of Testing
I always tell students that standardized-testing is more for me than for them – it is a tool designed to help schools, teachers, and parents see how students are doing and whether or not the curriculum is working.
On a criterion-based assessment, student scores help teachers see what their students are learning well, as well as what they aren’t retaining or understanding.
By analyzing scores, teachers get a better sense of how well the curriculum is working and which lessons might need to be changed.
2. Teach how the Brain Works Regarding Stress and Memory
Students need to understand that they can only do the best they can. I always emphasize this point with kids. There is no reason to stress over not knowing something because the test is designed to see what you know. If every student knew everything on the standardized test, the assessment would not be very useful.
Don’t Stress, Do Your Best
3. Teach Metacognition
Students need to think about their thinking. I hear teachers complain again and again that students are involved in their learning – “they don’t care.”
Students need to be taught how to monitor and assess their learning. Some people might naturally realize what works for them, but most of us need some guidance. Metacognition helps people recognize their strengths and weaknesses, which in turn allows people to improve their knowledge because they realize that they don’t know certain things.
Teachers need to actively model and teach metacognition. A few tools they can use are pre-assessments, formative assessment, reflection journals, and post-assessments.
For more information, read Metacognition by Nancy Chick on Vanderbilt University’s website.
4. Don’t Talk About the Test
I don’t mean that we can never discuss standardized testing. However, adults need to scale back how often testing is mentioned and especially stop emphasizing how “important” the testing is.
Personally, I do not believe in “rewarding” students for testing. When the testing pressure first started, we had to “promise” our classes all kinds of things if they “just showed up and did their best.” Honestly, this is just bribery, and if you read research on motivation, extrinsic motivation is not helpful in the long run.
Kids want to do well. (Students who stop trying have often already experienced failure or have more significant problems in their lives than passing a test.)
Surprise them with a mint or a water bottle on testing day, but don’t over-emphasize the test by telling them they will get an hour of recess if everyone shows up and does their best! (What will you do if someone puts his or her head down and doesn’t?!)
I hope I have given you some ideas to help students (and yourself) feel more relaxed about taking a standardized test. Do you have any other tips for de-stressing your classroom?
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