Thursday, March 26, 2009
Do Your Kids Hate Tests?
Some students hear the word "test" and have an immediate negative reaction. They may feel physical symptoms including headaches, stomachaches, general tension, and more. Many students undergo a change resulting in irritability, angry outbursts, and surly speech that is not (hopefully) typical behavior for them. Many of us who are adults now can recall similar reactions we had in childhood when we learned there would be a test. As one who prayed during every quiz and exam I had since the time I became a Christian in college, I understand the anxiety that even the thought of a test can evoke. Since I homeschooled my children, I didn't think they would experience test anxiety. Somehow, possibly through hearing other children's experiences with testing, they began to view evaluations as a negative factor in their schooling. Timed speed tests can cause a different type of reaction than competency tests, so I'll save that for another day's post. I set out to help my kids recognize testing as a part of the educational experience. I wanted them to recognize that testing was unavoidable to some degree, but I didn't want them to be intimidated or fearful about it. Basically, I wanted to help them make a mental paradigm shift in their thinking about testing. The first change I made was to use the words "test", "quiz", and "exam" frequently throughout the school day. Used often and for small tests as well as lengthier ones, the words helped desensitize the students' reactions and become common occurrences. I didn't save tests until Friday, but rather offered them on different days so there would be no conditioning to dread a certain day because it meant there would be a test then. I also concluded some of our informal question and answer sessions by telling the kids they had just completed an oral examination. I explained that I viewed tests as one of many ways they could show me what they had learned. I shared my belief that the exams helped me determine what I needed to review or emphasize more, and it was a reflection not just of their learning but of my success in teaching them. I also told them that the nature of a test is to sample learning, but it cannot possibly reveal all that a student does or does not know. It is a tool to help measure knowledge, but it can only offer a glimpse of information about the student as a person. I told my kids stories of people who are very bright but don't do well taking tests. We read biographies of incredible adults who had not done well in traditional school settings. For the first few years of homeschooling, I had a certified teacher do a portfolio review to assess my children's work. By the time my Josh and Beth were in third grade, I thought they were ready to take a standardized test. Still, I wasn't sure how distracting a large group setting would be, and since I wanted accurate results I hired a teacher to come to my home and administer the test. I had talked to my kids about the test, and they were a bit nervous but felt prepared. After only the second or third subtest, things started to unravel. The teacher had forgotten to bring answer sheets so she had given the kids lined notebook paper to write their answers on. Using a testing strategy I had taught her, Beth had skipped a difficult math problem with the intention of returning to it if she had time left after answering the remaining questions. Unfortunately, being a new test taker and not having the regular answer sheet with the "fill-in-the-bubble" option we had practiced, Beth had not skipped a line on her notebook paper responses. She didn't realize that nearly all of her answers were on the wrong line until she had finished the section and wanted to go back to the problem she skipped. By then, time was almost up and she realized she could not correct everything in time. She cried with frustration and despair because she thought that all her hard work was for nothing and now she would not pass third grade and would have to do it all again the next year. Josh became quite upset seeing his sister so distressed, and I came in to try and calm them down and reassure them that we would figure out which line should have been skipped and grade accordingly. The teacher I had hired offered to quit the testing right then. She suggested that another year of portfolio reviews might be in order. I knew, though, that it was critical that my kids finish that test. Not because of the test itself, but because this was their first experience with a standardized test administered by someone other than myself. If we had stopped at that point, I am positive they would have believed they had failed and were not capable of doing well on a test. I couldn't let that happen! If I had stopped at that point, they would have been extremely resistant to any testing in the future. That one experience was all they had, and I determined that they would not end it at such a disheartening point. So we took a snack break and I persuaded my children (and the teacher I had hired) that we were going to finish the test and that I believed everyone could do it. After about 20 minutes (which is what the brain needs to reabsorb all the chemicals released in a meltdown, by the way) the kids settled down to the next subtest. They were able to finish the test, and my children and the teacher all appeared relieved but significantly more relaxed. When the results came back a few weeks later, they had done just fine. I think this was a key experience that could have greatly increased the natural aversion to testing, but we didn't allow that to happen. We have to do what we can to keep the dread of tests from looming over our kids while allowing them to provide us with some information about our students. If we keep our perspective about testing in balance, we can help our children to do the same.