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How to reduce pressures of standardized testing

Many province’s education ministries administer standardized tests each year in an attempt to quantify the success rate of their teachers and schools. All kids, at some point, will be in a position where writing some kind of test is expected of them.

As teachers prepare their classes for the examination, stress can mount. This is especially true for younger children and children with learning disabilities. In the words of Sandra, a mother whose two children have both undergone standardized testing twice, “We don’t make university students write exams for hours on end, day after day, but we expect eight-year-olds to do it?”

These hours-long standardized tests (some take days) require all test takers to answer the same questions, or a selection of questions from common bank of questions, in the same way, and each test is scored in a “standard” or consistent manner. This way, groups of students, or schools as a whole, can be judged on their overall success. That’s a lot of pressure to put on little shoulders.

Signs of stress

Katrina, mother of a son with dyslexia, says he became “so very depressed and super anxious. He did not want to go to school, even though he had previously gone every day with a smile on his face.”

Michelle, mom to a 12-year-old with Pervasive Developmental Disorder, had a similar experience. She says that as the test approached, her son became aggressive and angry, feeling unable to express his frustration at his inability to perform well on a test for which his class had been preparing for weeks.

Watch out for these signs of stress in your child:

– Nail biting
– Outbursts
– Fatigue
– Moodiness
– Avoiding school
– Vomiting or hyperventilation (in extreme cases)

Relieving the stress

Most teachers emphasize that the test does not relate to a student’s personal academic success. When the test is presented to students as an opportunity to showcase all the wonderful knowledge and skills that they have gained over the last three years, teachers find that students tend to perform better. Framing the examination as a measure of the school’s success can lead to students feeling a great deal of pressure to perform, fearing that the fate of the entire school rests on the relative strength of their test paper.

As a parent, remind your child that this test has absolutely no bearing on their academic grades whatsoever. Secondly, present it as a fun challenge. Sometimes a new experience can be just what a kid needs to gain more confidence in their abilities. Thirdly, on testing days, ensure that they have had adequate sleep and eat a hearty, healthy breakfast.

Revise it or reject it?

Standardized educational testing is a contentious issue. Present this question to any group of parents or educators and you are guaranteed to spark a lively debate.

Many feel that the current incarnation of testing practices fails to live up to the ethical standards that would be expected in order to achieve the desired end result.

The purpose is to provide a statistical measure by which the relative strength of the teaching practices of both an individual teacher and a school as a whole can be quantified.

At the same time, others will defend the value of the end results, arguing that being able to put a numerical value to their achievement in various curriculum areas is crucial to being able to evolve a successful and balanced teaching practice.

“Teaching to the test” some will say completely invalidates the statistics that the test exists to provide, while others will defend this practice. One of the benefits of the results is that they can show a school where they are succeeding and other areas where improvement is desirable. Responding to weak scores in mathematics, for example, by focusing on and improving those practices has great value.

There are still others who advocate for scrapping the practice altogether as it is a waste of instructional time, and taxpayer dollars, being a poorly planned and executed disaster.

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, April 2015.

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