Sunday, March 23, 2014

Helping Students Stay Strong during Standardized Test Time

                                     The Carrot Seed by Ruth Krauss, picture by Crockett Johnson. Harper&Row 1945

Unless you’ve opted your child out from taking these - Common Core Standardized Tests loom on the horizon for public and charter school kids. As crocuses and allergies bloom, English Language Arts and Math teachers are expected to fill kids’ heads with strategies for taking the tests. Teachers work diligently, as they are graded on the standardized returns, and with consecutive low scores, careers are at stake.  But, preparing for the content of these mysterious and high stakes tests is always guesswork because students are not being tested specifically on content that has been taught in class. It’s all about thinking like the test maker.  Compassionate teachers try to make prep time less tedious and as commonsensical as they can, but it’s likely that your child may arrive home feeling toasted, stressed out and worried.

The test days arrive. Regular instruction is suspended. Kids are shuffled around to any available rooms for testing. (Last year, my ELA students were delegated to the tech room, -an unfamiliar setting - where they sat on backless stools for 1½ hours at a time.) Walls are emptied.  Guides to solving equations or writing a paragraph are taken down or covered. Conference rooms are stacked with teacher packets and bulky bundled tests that many trees gave their lives for, and where many tax dollars are spent.  I think back to the cupboard of dog-eared class novels, many of them falling apart, even with best efforts to tape them back together.  The tests, in comparison, are fresh off the press, in pristine condition.  A monastic silence in the halls is maintained, the regular schedules are disrupted, and the effect is disorienting for everybody – even teachers and students who are normally cheerful.  These days are about getting through these days. 

What you can do to help your child

Here are the emotional settings that (specifically younger) students tend verbalize as they get ready to while take these tests.  Students in upper grades tend to internalize these concerns more.   

I’m not smart. I’m a “1” or a “2”.

I can’t remember everything we did to prepare.

I won’t do as well as everybody else in class.

I’m afraid I’ll disappoint my parents if I don’t do well.

I’m afraid I’ll let (you) my teacher down if I don’t do well. 

Occasionally a student will say: I’m just going to do my bestThat’s all I can do.

It’s pretty clear that a parent has proactively cultivated that mind set. That student already has an advantage before coloring in the first bubble with his number two pencil:  His parents have done the footwork in helping this child put the test into perspective.  He’s more relaxed and is going to have more mental energy while taking the test.  And he’s probably not going to spend time worrying about how he did when he completes it.  His parents have given him a valuable life skill tool with this mantra, and he gets to practice using it. 

Keeping a Broad Perspective:

Before distributing the test materials while looking out at both sleepy and worried faces, I’d think through what I wished I could say: a disclaimer. The test I am about to give you does not reflect your performance in my class. But then I’d need a disclaimer for my disclaimer:  In fact, even though I’m a public school teacher standing here administering them, I don’t buy into these tests at all, hang in there, and we’ll get back to what we were doing in class.  

What I’d actually tell students:

This test has nothing to do with how smart a person you are.

This test doesn’t show all the talents that you may have. 

It doesn’t show that you are a good friend.

It doesn’t show the kind of learning style you have.

It also doesn’t show how hard you may work as a student.

If you want to know how you’re really doing, look at the assignments that we’ve done together over the school year.

This test is about just doing your best, just for today.

For all involved, it’s like spending a sweaty day down at the quarry chipping rocks.

So, when your child comes home from school after prepping and testing, remember that lots of energy (and funding) is being spent on something that is not the culmination of what he has learned from his teacher’s lessons.  He might appreciate your invitation for him to decompress from the intensity of the day by inviting him to talk about it. Or, he may not want to, and who would blame him?

These unsolicited questions are not helpful:

How’d you do? (He probably doesn’t know or doesn’t want to think about that right now.)

Did you get a “3” or a “4”? (This is a reductive way to look at the work a kid has put into something.)

Did you finish on time? (The test is a done deal.  Is this really that important?)

Did you answer all the questions?  (The test is a done deal. Is this really that important?)

Did you check your work? (The test is a done deal. Teachers have already reminded students to do this.)

Shouldn’t you spend time on review for tomorrow’s test? (…Really?....)

If anything, these kinds of questions reveal a parent’s anxiety, so now there are two stressed out people sitting at the kitchen table. In showing your own anxiety, you also may be inadvertently showing your child that you place value on this impersonal and inaccurate measuring device – over the teacher’s day-to-day classroom assessments of your child’s progress. Which is a better indicator? Which form of assessment do you actually take stock in?

These tests in no way determine how successful a child will be in the future. But, layered as they are, they can eat away at a child’s self value, and make her question her capabilities, and that does sabotage future success.  The most helpful comment that will reverberate with your child during tomorrow’s test:  I’m sure that you’re doing the best that you can.  

Instead of spending time on a post-mortem--examining the now dead body of the test, this is the time when it’s most beneficial to invite kids to let their brains breathe and to encourage them relax and replenish.

I was trying to daydream, but my mind kept wandering. ~Steven Wright

It’s a healthy practice to help your child cultivate for herself.  As a culture, we don’t seem to value the process of mind emptying.  It’s all about stuffing it with things. Although, many burnt-out adults fork out lots of money to re-learn how to daydream or step back through self help classes; through meditation or hiking classes to lower fight-or-flight cortisol levels, or some class that will help them channel switch from stress and strokes.

When my eldest was a four-year-old in preschool, the mom of one of his classmates wisely introduced to the rest of us new moms the value of ‘stoop settin’ time’.  She had grown up in Brooklyn, and shared that as a kid, when she and her friends got home from school, they’d set on the stoop and hang out without any particular planned or structured activity; they might play tag, or draw chalk people on the sidewalk, they might just chat; the only time constraint being that they needed to go in for dinner in a couple of hours.

We don’t give ourselves much ‘stoop settin’ time’ until we’re old and we can’t move around and we’re forced to sit and air out.   But it is key to mental health – we all need a breather in between.  Although it’s within a young child’s nature to stop and examine an ant colony, or, throw stones into a puddle, kids can be further encouraged to decompress from a packed school day – to daydream, draw pictures, play with the dog, listen to music, or play a simple game. It’s relaxing to set time aside each day to do “nothing.”

Relaxing and replenishing lead to better endurance.

If anything, the tests measure a student’s endurance.  If your child is taught the value of (unplugged) relaxing, and the importance of replenishing her energy, anxiety over the next test will be more manageable, and she’ll have more energy to continuing to sit for the tests, and then move on to more meaningful activities.

The tension-filled rituals of preparing for the tests and the anxiety of everyone involved can skew perspectives.  Sitting outside, looking up at the sky or over at the horizon, playing a game, daydreaming or puttering around are the best therapies for putting the Standardized tests in their place.

Sit in reverie and watch the changing color of the waves that break upon the idle seashore of the mind.  ~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow 
Follow me on twitter: parentsplaybook

No comments:

Post a Comment