De-Stressing Standardized Tests

Ever wonder if you could pass the 10th grade standardized test in your school district?

One brave dad in Florida decided to give it a shot. Despite two masters degrees, 15 hours toward a doctorate and helping run a 3 billion dollar company, he scored in the 62nd percentile on reading. Is it any wonder our kids get stressed by these tests?

Since state testing begins next week in many districts, I thought I’d share my thoughts on how you can help your kids manage the experience.

An Overview

Every child enrolled in grades 3-10 in public schools takes standardized tests each spring. In Massachusetts – it’s called the MCAS test; Florida – FCAT, Texas – TAKS, Illinois – ISAT,  California – STAR, etc). Besides reading and math each year, every 2-3 years many states add writing, science or social studies. About 75% of all states now require 10th graders to pass their test to graduate. Whether you agree with state mandated testing or not, it’s been around for a decade now and it’s probably here to stay – no matter who’s in the White House.

What’s important to know is that these tests are standards-based achievement tests, meaning they assess how well your child understands grade level standards. They don’t test for problem solving or cognitive ability; they are not “normed” tests (graded against other students), like the college SAT test. Except for the writing sections, the questions are typically multiple choice, short answer or essay. In most states, these tests are not timed.

Preparing for Tests

Most teachers review test taking strategies with their students. Many schools use previous tests for practice. Because students’ scores are now becoming hitched to a teachers evaluation, the stakes are higher. In some classrooms that translates to more pressure being put on kids. Most schools are trying to keep or move students into Proficient or Advanced categories; kids who land in Partially Proficient (Developing) or Unsatisfactory are often eligible for extra support the next school year.

If your child comes home stressed day after day and reports that the teacher says things like, “I could get in trouble if you guys don’t do well on this test,” write the comments down. Keep a list. Confirm with other families if classmates are reporting this too. Then request a meeting with the teacher and bring in your list. Be professional (see my Power of P3) and let the teacher know what your children is hearing. Explain how the comments are stressing out your child and will only result in a worse test score – a lose-lose for all. If the teacher doesn’t respond well, or you don’t see an immediate change, see the principal.

Helping at Home

Parents play an important role in helping their kids do their best on tests. My test acronym for parents is CSB. Use Calming strategies, make sure they get lots of Sleep and serve a healthy Breakfast. Your mother was right. Sleep and breakfast really do make a difference. But lets first look at strategies you can use to help your child stay calm and reduce test stress.

Be Calming: Take a positive attitude with your children around tests. Remind them that what matters most is that they try their hardest. (See my post on why praising effort works.) Let them know that these tests were also created to test how well the schools are teaching. If kids are still stressed or anxious, reiterate some test taking strategies they learn in school. These typically include:

Reading: Read the questions first and keep them in mind as you read the story. Underline phrases or words that will help answer the questions. Cross out answers on multiple choice that don’t work at all. If you’re not sure, leave it blank, go on to the next question, then go back. There are three levels of questions: find it (basic facts); think and find it (requires connecting facts); empathize, think and find it (look for feeling words).

Math: There’s no substitute for children knowing their math facts. By the end of 4th grade, its crucial kids know their basic math facts (+,-,x and / through the 12s) and parents need to reinforce these at home. (See my resource page for helpful links and games.) For multiple choice, cover the answers and do the problem; for open response, underline the question, stay focused on the formula steps and draw a picture if needed; for short answer, read the question carefully.

Sleep: Sleep fuels the brain. This subject is near and dear to my heart after spending 2 years on a student sleep needs committee. Kids ages 5-10 need 10-11 hours of sleep per night. Teens need 9 hours. Before a test, students need the recommended hours of sleep for at least two nights to feel their best. The right amount of sleep improves focus, memory and allows kids to feel both relaxed and alert on test days.

Breakfast: Food optimizes the brain. Studies show that getting a good breakfast into your kids improves short term working memory (the ability to hold a thought and connect to another). Avoid sugary cereals (over 5 grams!), donuts, pastries,  or white flour. Focus on protein, fiber and complex carbohydrates. Eggs, dairy, fruit, wheat bread and nuts. Real whole wheat bread is made with 100% whole wheat flour. Watch the nutrition labels – many claims mislead.

And one last trick that helps anyone relax. Teach your kids to take three deep breaths before a big test. It oxygenates the brain. And when those test scores come in, take a big breath yourself.

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