Standardized test anxiety

Apr 2, 2009 at 6:05 p.m. ET

Are you fretting over the results of your child's standardized test? The sharpened No. 2 pencils, the little bubbles to fill in, eyes glazing over at yet another page of answers to coordinate between the testing booklet and the machine readable paper next to it. Standardized testing hasn't changed all that much in the thirty years since I took the tests in school and now when my children take them. It's standardized testing season on my neck of the woods and it has me - and many others - thinking about their role in our children's education.

Boy Taking ExamLove them or hate them, we can't seem to get away from standardized testing. What does seem to change, however, is the perspective with which they are viewed. The pendulum swings decade to decade, or even generation to generation, it seems. There are eras when the goal of success at standardized tests seem to be the focus of what our children are taught, and eras where they are seen more as a necessary annoyance. They are not likely to go away, however.For what it's worth, I think standardized testing should be viewed and interpreted in contexts large and small; the large context being general educational trends and overall academic performance, and the small being our individual children and their individual schools. They - and their results - are only a part of the equation of what and how our children learn.

Different kids, different learning styles

I think one of the great things about education in the last few of decades is the increased understanding of different learning styles. Some kids are very visual learners, some are hands on, some can do it all with just books, and so on. As learning styles have come to be more understood, teaching methods have evolved. It's no longer all about reciting, rote memorization, and the like.I know kids in my community that have difficulty performing on written evaluations of any kind, but talk to them for just a few moments and the depth of their knowledge on any given topic is quite impressive. While it's not necessarily right to exempt them completely from written work, I have yet to understand how standardized tests take this into account, if at all. At a time we are trying to acknowledge and embrace differences in learning styles, standardized tests sometimes seem incongruous.

Test coaching

When standardized testing season arrives in our town, I fret a little. I know that much pressure is put on our administrators to have "good" results. I know there are several days spent in each of my kids' classrooms essentially reminding them how to take this kind of test, and taking sample tests. Those are days in which the whole of the educational experience seems to be lost. Actual education is suspended in favor of teaching test-taking skills. Sure, it's nice when my child's school announces a "good" result, but I'd still rather there had been real education going on those days.The bottom line, in my view, is even with these test review days, some kids are test takers, some aren't - and there's no way I know to appropriately identify who has the test taking "gene" (as I call it), and then handicap the results. Some kids just naturally do better on that kind of evaluation, while kids next to them who are just as smart and talented, don't. Teaching test taking skills can help, yes, but every kid is different; no kid is standard.

Keeping perspective

I don't mean to dismiss standardized tests entirely, but I do think they belong in perspective. They can but one indicator of what your child is being taught, yes, but not necessarily your child's knowledge and capacity for knowledge. They don't take into account art and music and project planning and teamwork and human interaction and all the other pieces of your child's school day. Standardized tests are just one in a number of factors with which you can evaluate your child's education, and your child's educational experience. Your observation and involvement in your child's education is one of the best ways to evaluate their education.As standardized testing isn't likely to go away anytime soon (though I sense the pendulum is just starting a swing toward the necessary annoyance side of things), we do have to make some peace with it. Keep it in it's proper perspective, though. But also, get your child to bed early, give her or him a healthy breakfast and send them to school with a handful of sharpened pencils.

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