How To Destress Standardized Testing
Testing is something I feel very passionate about. I have two children, and I taught for 20 years before I began homeschooling. I’ve seen how high-stakes testing has affected kids. I mean, we have kids who are so stressed out that they’re throwing up on their standardized tests.
When I was a student I don’t even remember my teacher talking about standardized testing. I remember in fourth grade, I walked into the classroom and I was like, “Oh, the chairs and desks are rearranged, I guess it’s testing”. But I had not even recalled my teacher talking about testing or saying “we’re going to test,” or, “Oh, tomorrow’s the test.”
We’ve gotten so far away from that, and I think we have to take a step back as parents, teachers, and administrators and start to say, “What is it that we’re doing that is causing this stress, and what can we do about it?”
What Causes Testing Related Stress?
Too Much Emphasis On Testing
Frankly, there’s just too much emphasis on testing. Teachers talk about the test, parents talk about the test, administrators talk about the test, everybody talks about the test. And then we talk about how if you don’t pass the test, you’re gonna fail the grade level.
At least that’s the way it is here in Florida. Honestly, the kids freak out about this. I mean they may not say it in the class, and it’s not even always the kids that you think should worry about failing the tests.
My daughter always got fives on tests, she’s a great test taker and even she would say, “Well, if I don’t pass the test…”
Some kids just have high anxiety or are high achievers and they put that pressure on themselves, even if no one ever mentions the test.
Parents and teachers, we talk about test scores a lot. I know I do it too much with my son because, unfortunately, I have one child that’s a very good test taker and one that is not a good test taker.
And even if I try to just talk to him a little bit about the test, he’ll say, “I don’t want to talk about this anymore,” because it’s too much. It’s too much stress to even discuss it.
In my experience teaching, I found that elementary school was worse than middle school. The administrators would get on the school news and talk about the test and how much students needed to be ready for the big test. This started in September when the test wasn’t until April. When you put all those things together, it’s overwhelming.
What Does Stress Do?
So what does stress do to students? How does this stress affect testing?
Long ago, we had to survive in our “eat or be eaten” type of world. Our bodies developed to help us survive. Our brains have an amygdala, which shuts down our thinking brain when the body goes into fight or flight mode.
I always tell the kids that stress gets into your alligator brain. When you get stressed or scared, that triggers your fight or flight reflex, your amygdala turns on.
Once that amygdala kicks in, your thinking brain is completely shut down. Even if you have all the knowledge, you can’t access any of those things that you learned.
So, unfortunately, if you go into a test nervous, you are unable to actually think. That’s why some kids say, “I know it but I just couldn’t think of it”. They get so nervous that they cause their brain to shut down.
This is why we have to teach kids how to de-stress and to lower the pressure we are putting on testing. Let’s look at four ways you can de-stress testing for your students.
4 Ways To Destress Testing
Start Emphasizing Why We Test
We need to start emphasizing why we test. My son is in high school right now, and he’ll come home so frustrated, saying things like, “I don’t even know why we test. It’s just so stupid.”
If used correctly, testing is actually a valuable tool. Standardized tests are meant to help us see where students need help or need to be accelerated or where we might need to make changes in our teaching. It’s a tool. It’s not meant to be a club.
I always told my students, “The purpose of this test really is for me. This test is for me to see, did I teach you well enough?”
“This is to make sure that I’m doing my job well, that you’ve learned what you’re supposed to learn. That’s what this test shows me.”
This takes some of the stress off kids because they see the test isn’t meant to be do or die.
Another way we can de-stress is by teaching breathing techniques. We can be mindful and teach a simple breathing technique for them. Teach them ways that they can close their eyes for a few minutes and perhaps envision that they’re at the beach or somewhere that takes them out of that anxiety.
If they can prevent the nervousness before their fight or flight kicks in, they will do better on the test.
Metacognition is understanding how one thinks and learns. If you look at metacognition and what it does, it explains to kids what their strengths and weaknesses are in their thinking.
Some things that teachers use to help teach metacognition are pre-assessments. Post assessments are also good.
Another thing I did to build metacognition was to go over tests with my students. Instead of passing tests back as students leave, I would have everyone look at their results and ask “who has a question that they don’t understand why it’s wrong?” It helps students to go through and see how they were thinking, what their mistake was, and how they can change it.
And that is the purpose of these types of activities. Another idea is to use reflective journals – get students to think about what they understand or not understand.
Stop Talking About The Tests CONSTANTLY
And my last tip is the one that I talked about earlier, but I think we all have to stop talking about the tests constantly to kids. They internalize it. It makes them sick, and they can’t focus.
If you are seeing a lot of anxiety around testing in your classroom and your community, ask yourself the following questions:
- Are we talking about tests on the morning news?
- Are we talking about tests in class?
- Are we asking parents to talk about tests at home?
- Is information about the tests in the newsletter?
If the answer to these questions is yes, your environment might be inviting stress into your students’ lives.
And this is how we are ending up with kids throwing up all over the desk.
So my biggest advice is to…
- Teach students why stress affects the brain
- Teach them how the alligator brain works
- Teach students breathing techniques
- Teach students metacognition
And don’t forget to remind students of the purpose of testing! We just want to see what they know. Take the emphasis away from their performance.
What do you do to destress standardized testing? I’d love to hear!