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Its Only a Test

Testing may not be a favorite school activity, but it is one that is here to stay. When the adults around them are nervous -- or worse yet, negative -- about standardized tests, students can adopt those attitudes as well. Experts say educators need to identify their own feelings toward testing and find the positive in order to prepare and enable students to do their best. Included: Simple tips for administrators to facilitate a smooth test day.

"I think it's pretty much a given that most educators -- the sane ones, anyway -- will have mixed reactions to standardized tests," explains Kathe Taylor, Ph.D., policy director for the Washington State Board of Education. "Students are perceptive and pick up on teachers' attitudes, even when those attitudes are not expressed explicitly. Teachers need to be aware of the messages they send to students by their tone of voice, facial expression, or casual remarks."

Together with Sherry Walton, Ph.D., of Washington's Evergreen State College, Taylor has assisted many teachers in identifying and overcoming their issues with standardized tests. The two co-authored the book Children at the Center: A Workshop Approach to Standardized Test Preparation, which contains a number of scripted workshop sessions that teachers can use with their students to maximize their ability to show what they actually know in a testing format.

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In meeting with teachers, Walton often shares a children's book called Testing Miss Malarkey by Judy Finchler. The book provides an insightful and humorous look into how the behaviors and attitudes of teachers may affect their students. On one page, a student states that Miss Malarkey said the test wasn't that important, and that grades wouldn't be affected, but the picture shows a frazzled teacher biting her fingernails. A student dialog bubble says, "Miss Malarkey, you shouldn't bite your nails." The tale rings too true for many teachers who are uneasy with standardized tests.

PANICKED TO POSITIVE

"I think that what has been most effective in changing attitudes when we have worked with educators was to help them understand that what they say and do absolutely impacts students' test behaviors," explained Walton.

"In the past we have asked teachers to talk in groups about their own experiences with testing. Hearing that many teachers actually enjoyed taking tests -- yes, it's true! -- on one hand, and sharing old hurts and difficulties, on the other, helped them realize that testing can be perceived as useful and that students don't have to suffer."

Prepare Students
For Test Day

"Most states give standardized tests where students must sit for 3 hours a day," Larry Bell told Education World. "Sometimes students must sit for days at a time, bubbling in questions for uninterrupted 3-hour blocks. Yet, as I walk through schools across the country, I witness many teachers giving weekly or biweekly assessments that last just 15 to 20 minutes. Why is it, I wonder, that teacher tests are so short? If educators know that at the end of the year their students are going to need to sit for 3-hour blocks of testing, why on Earth would they give tests throughout the year that last 15, 20, or 25 minutes at the most?

Read more: Prepare Students for Long, Dull Tests

On occasion, Walton and Taylor have prompted teachers to look in a mirror and practice how to introduce testing to students. That allows the teachers to see themselves objectively and work on developing and projecting positive body language and messages. Most teachers genuinely want their students to succeed and wouldn't deliberately create an atmosphere that decreases students' abilities to do well, the pair has found, but they are often unaware of their own negative feelings toward testing and how those are conveyed.

"Another simple exercise we often use with teachers is to ask them to write down all the words that come to mind when they hear standardized test," Taylor shared. "We have conducted this activity with hundreds of teachers and the results are always the same: The majority of teachers create lists that are filled much more with concerns and frustrations than with positive associations."

Even so, as Taylor points out, tests are a reality in schools today, and the only teacher attitudes that will really help students are those that promote a constructive approach to testing.

PREPPING FOR TEST DAY

"Students need to experience test-taking conditions and formats before the day of the test," advised Taylor. "Occasional practice working individually; in pristine, quiet settings; and under the pressure of limited time will normalize those conditions so that students do not experience them only as isolated instances that occur once or twice a year. Similarly, practice with multiple-choice, short-response, and extended-response formats represented on the tests are crucial."

Walton agrees that practice with test format is helpful. Some students don't have a good sense of pacing on timed tests, so practice under timed conditions can improve their ability to move efficiently through an exam.

Testing:
The Principal's Role

There are many things that an administrator can do to support grade levels and specific classes that are engaged in testing. "For one thing, do not be like the principal in Testing Miss Malarkey," Sherry Walton admonishes. She recommends principals do what they can to create a calm atmosphere in the school. That includes
--- making sure that no heavy machinery (for example, a lawn mower) is being used during test time.
--- regulating the temperature of the building.
--- providing water and nutritious snacks.
--- helping teachers learn stress reduction techniques to use with their students.
--- smiling and greeting students.
--- resisting the temptation to equate student test scores with teacher effectiveness.

"Some districts have students take practice tests, have teachers score the tests using anchors or rubrics, and then create workshops to help students understand how their work was scored," Walton reported. "In the workshops, students are involved in scoring other sample test pieces using the rubrics and, thereby, become more aware of what constitutes a quality answer."

Most essential is participating in teacher-guided discussions that help students figure out strategies for successfully working through test items, an approach that is especially useful for multiple-choice tests.

"Asking students, 'What are your best test-taking strategies?' may start the conversation, but many students will look blank and say they have no strategies," Taylor advised. "But if you ask, 'What do you do when you don't know the answer to a multiple-choice question? How do you figure out the answer?' the ideas will start to flow. Then you can tell them those ideas are strategies."

Students should understand that different tests may require different strategies, and sharing information about specific tests can be beneficial. For example, guessing is penalized on the SAT but not on the ACT, so students will need to recognize that wrong answers will count against them more on one test than on another. Students should also be made aware of scoring methods so they know the criteria that will be considered in determining the most effective response.

"In general, I think it's important for students to realize through experience that assessment and testing can help them understand their strengths and needs as learners, and I think it is vital that students learn the 'literacy' format of tests so that they control the test situation rather than being controlled by it," said Walton. "Feeling vulnerable and out of control creates stress that interferes with performance."

TEST SUCCESS STARTS AT THE TOP

How can administrators and teachers help students cope with the stress of test day? Anticipate distractions and eliminate them ahead of time. Test day is obviously not a good time for loud mowers and equipment to operate or for testing a fire alarm system.

Simulated
Test Days

You never want to surprise students when they have to take a standardized test. By planning simulated test days, you work out the kinks and kids know what to expect when the actual test day comes around; they can relax and focus on the job at hand.

"I contend that schools should plan and hold simulated test days four times a year," said education consultant Larry Bell. "And here is the most important part: at the end of the simulated test day, the entire staff must come together. Administrators must share everything they saw. Teachers must share everything they saw"

"Doing several simulated test days during the school year makes students familiar with the procedures and processes. They know what to expect. When the actual test day comes around, they can relax and focus on the job at hand: doing the best they can possibly do on the test."

Read more: Simulated Test Days Are Key

"First and foremost, keep your sense of humor," Taylor suggested. "Make sure the heat or air conditioning is working, everyone has a place to sit, sharpened pencils are in good supply, and proctors that students like -- you know who they are -- are in the room. Stay upbeat and have snacks students will eat on hand. Despite your best efforts, they won't all have followed the advice to eat a good breakfast."

"And did I mention keep your sense of humor?"

Although she thinks standardized testing per se is being over-emphasized in schools, Walton recognizes the importance of assessment in the learning process.

"I would love to see all teachers routinely assess student learning, help children and youth learn to self-assess, and then use that information to create learning opportunities that help all students learn knowledge and skills that will support them in their lives," she said.

TAKE COMFORT IN KNOWLEDGE

"As a country we are over tested and under assessed," added Michael White, Ph.D., a professional development associate with the Center for Performance Assessment and a licensed pediatric psychologist. "Teachers and students should feel comfortable with assessment because they see it as a part of instruction. Assessment occurs so that we can check our learning and adjust our teaching. It can occur at the end of each day and lead to the focus of instruction tomorrow."

But testing is divorced from instruction and evaluative in nature, White explained. While testing receives greater attention, it is less designed to "help" and more to keep score. The best way to make students comfortable with standardized tests is to let them know they are prepared through frequent assessments.

"Along with solid literacy skills, kids should be able to read and interpret charts and graphs like those in USA Today, have numbers sense and understand number operations, and possess science process skills," White observed.

But the most powerful predictor of test success is proficiency with nonfiction literacy (writing and reading), White added. Thats why he encourages administrators to get parents involved.


Tests are a reality in schools today, and the only teacher attitudes that will really help students are those that promote a constructive approach to testing.

"My best advice to parents is to create a home where children read nonfiction literature three times a week for 15 minutes and then write about what they have read for five minutes," he said. "The research is exhaustive. This skill is one of the best predictors of school success."

Some educators support the use of extrinsic rewards to encourage improved test performance, while others feel strongly that they are not appropriate, but White feels that the answer is most likely between the two viewpoints. Administrators are in the best position to determine whether rewards will benefit their students.

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

Helping Children Overcome Test Anxiety
From addressing the "what-if" questions to eating a hearty breakfast, this page offers tips to help kids cope with the anxiety of test day.

Article by Cara Bafile
Copyright © 2008 Education World®

Originally published 04/30/2007
Last updated 04/29/2008

 

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