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Boost Scores, Lower Anxiety

The research has some simple and fascinating things to say about how we can boost student performance on standardized test scores, including a simple writing exercise that actually can reduce the achievement gap in education. Unfortunately, with the mounting pressure to increase standardized tests scores, many educators and administrators are unknowingly creating classroom environments that are not conducive to student success. They are increasing test anxiety by resorting to the use of some pretty controversial statements in the classroom:

  • If you don’t pass this test, I might lose my job.
  • This test will go on your permanent record.
  • The school might be shut down if you don’t do well on the test.
  • You’re going to be held back if you don’t pass the test.

As educators, we are better than this. No matter how stressed we are, no matter how much pressure is passed down to us from administrators and district leaders, we simply cannot pass that down to the kids.

There is growing concern about testing and some groups have even gone as far as boycotting the tests around the country. The test is not the problem. The way we talk to children about it is the problem.

Students as young as 8 tell me they are worried their teachers will get fired if they don’t pass the test. They tell me they are embarrassed already because they know other kids will make fun of them if they don’t pass. They tell me they are scared that it will be on their permanent record. Seriously, I have never had an employer turn me down for a job because I failed the reading comprehension portion of the California Achievement Test when I was in elementary school.

This is the real injustice with testing. It’s not what the testing industry is doing or what the Department of Education is doing by distributing tests or making decisions based on the tests. It is what we, as educators, are doing.

Teachers: Even if you don’t issue threats to children in your classroom out of desperation, you know other teachers, or in some cases, administrators, who do. Make a pledge to talk to those teachers and administrators about their actions and the adverse consequences of them. If it doesn’t stop, report it to someone who will take action.

Parents: Talk to your children about the test. Listen to them without interrupting them. Ask them what they feel and what their concerns are. Don’t correct any misconceptions or succumb to the urge to interrupt until they have let it all out. Let them vent. Let them know they don’t have to bottle up their worries with the cork of optimism and positive thinking. Then work to correct the misconceptions. If it seems like someone at your child’s school is issuing empty threats or creating a hostile learning environment for your child by being threatening or not encouraging, make it a top priority to talk with that person at the school. Understand, though, that what your child fears may not necessarily be a reflection of what her teacher or administrator is actually saying. It could just be the way your child is processing the situation. Kids have very creative ways of interpreting the world around them. The positive slogans, constant reassurance, discussions, pressure and practice with the big test could just be leading your child to misinterpret what it all really means.

On top of the moral and ethical concerns of issuing empty threats to students, we all know that anxiety and stress decreases learning, consolidation and retention. Chronic stress kills learning, period. Stressing kids out is not the answer. Changing the way we talk about the test is the answer, and here are three simple ways to make that happen.

1. Have honest conversations about the test. Do this in a calm, supportive environment, where kids are not criticized for their fears or concerns about the test and where teachers are correcting any misconceptions about the test (such as the notion that they will get fired if the kids don’t pass). This will go a long way in easing test anxiety.

 2. Engage in expressive writing. There is quite a bit of research demonstrating that engaging in simple expressive writing exercises about the test and writing about the things those students’ value and are grateful for in life can actually decrease a major source of test anxiety and lead to a boost in student performance. This simple writing activity helps kids vent and then redirects their focus to the things they love and pour their hearts into. Doing the latter portion of the writing exercise in a varied manner, as often as possible, will ensure that students spend more time thinking about the things they are grateful for than on things they are worried about (like how they will do on the test).

3. Create a classroom culture that embraces mistakes. By reminding students that you are more pleased with effort and hard work than on correct answers, you will positively reinforce behaviors such as perseverance and hard work as well as decrease student concerns about incorrect answers, both of which will dramatically reduce test anxiety.

Especially in low-performing and/or low-income schools, the pressure to raise test scores not only leads to an increase in the use of activities that boost test anxiety, it also leads to a boost in test prep instruction that is mediocre at best and counterproductive at worst. Classroom and homework time tends to focus heavily, and in some cases, solely, on test-taking strategies instead of instruction. Schools hand out test booklets filled with nothing but excruciatingly boring reading comprehension passages and sample test questions. They turn such tests into lessons. Instead of getting kids to love reading or find meaning in math, the focus shifts to getting them to do as many sample tests, using as many test-taking shortcuts as possible, to ensure higher test scores. In many cases, the reading passages in these test materials are well above the reading levels of the struggling students in these schools. So students experience a double-dose of failure, only increasing anxiety about the test.

The strategy does tend to slightly raise scores short-term and teachers often encourage kids to memorize and use reading strategies, including RUNNERS, where each letter in that word stands for one more thing the child is supposed to stop and do while reading. A child’s working memory is already taxed and overwhelmed during reading, especially if the child is struggling to pronounce the words on the page. This makes it even more difficult for students to actually concentrate on the uninteresting and challenging reading passages in front of them, leading to even more anxiety about the test. Such reading strategies are based on a desire to boost scores and have no roots in sound educational research-based practices.

If we cared more about engaging students in learning, we would see the boost in test scores, but for a variety of reasons, that is a hard sell to teachers and administrators who are under tremendous pressure to quickly boost test scores. The least we can do is to attempt to make learning fun, have honest conversations about the test and create a classroom culture that welcomes mistakes.

We are the adults here. We must take the moral high ground. We must stand up to injustice in our classrooms, schools and districts. We must remember that students perform best in a cooperative, nonthreatening learning environment, and we must have the maturity and resolve to stop sharing our emotional baggage with children.

Kumar Sathy is an educator and author of Attack of the Chicken Nugget Man: A National Test Prep Adventure. See

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