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Ask an Expert: Testing season tips

EdNews Parent expert Ilana Spiegel offers up some helpful anecdotes and tips about how to help your child through testing season and how those results are really used – or not.

Q. My fifth grade daughter is having trouble sleeping and seems to be stressed out over TCAP testing, which happens this entire month at her school. I heard the school is using TCAP results to decide whether she will get into advanced math next year. So the stakes for kids are high – as they are for schools. Do you have any tips to deal with testing weeks at school?

A. As an educator I am supposed to remind you of the importance of a good night sleep, a good breakfast and good effort during TCAP. Hopefully your child is getting a good night sleep, eating a good breakfast and putting in a good effort every day, not just for high stakes testing.

Our children are smart enough to know that these days and weeks are different than every other day. Concerts and practices are cancelled, appointments are postponed until after the testing window, parents are monitoring the hallway, snacks and drinks are brought in, and as a reward there is no homework! Those efforts to cushion the blow of high stakes tests inevitably fail, because, quantifiable tests take up so much space and weight in the lives of adults in schools that the weight and burden is inevitably felt by our children.

Learning from fourth-graders

Recently I had the incredible opportunity to sit side up side with some fourth-graders preparing for TCAP. Fourth-graders are a unique bunch of high stakes test takers; not only do they have one year of experience with the testing machine, but developmentally they are less egocentric. It is around 9 or 10 that kids begin to realize that the world does not revolve around them.

The day I came in most of the students had finished two cycles of practicing the extended writing portion, which included a plan, rough draft and final copy. Jack had the beginning of one plan and not writing. When I pulled up my chair next to him he teared up and explained how he hated TCAP and did not understand why he had to take it:

“Why do you take any test?” I asked.

“To see your progress,” he replied.

“Why is this test different?”

“Because it is bigger, badder and longer.”

Although Jack recognized and appreciated the importance of testing in general, he was struggling with the purpose of a “bigger, badder and longer” test. Tests, time constraints and demands we don’t like are a life skill. But when we are confident and inspired, those lines in the sand feel more like scaffolding than quicksand. Jack was feeling neither confident nor inspired.

I know, as does his teacher, that Jack is a kid who reads widely and thinks deeply. When we pulled out his (blank) paper it turned out he knew so much about the topic he didn’t know where to start, what to include and what was OK to leave out. Unfortunately, a blank paper on test day would not have led to a discussion and progress, but judged as “unsatisfactory.”

And he knew that.

If he doesn’t do well on this test, he saw it as not just failing a test that he, his teacher, and parents will see, but he has failed himself because others have seen it. When we played out a “worst case scenario” of him not finishing, or getting a low score, he said he would be mad at himself because he would end up in a “low” or “bad” literacy class the next year. Jack understands that tests are intended to help us progress and improve, but this type of test can limit opportunities and serve as a gate-keeper. How do we help our children, therefore, see the test as a bridge – not as an impassable chasm?

The truth about TCAP test scores and class placement

Another “what I am supposed to tell you” as an educator and a member of multiple accountability committees is that your child’s score has a direct impact on her placement. The reality is that the impact is minimal. With the exception of third grade reading scores, test data and results are not available until August. Most placement decisions for middle and high school are being made now, without the test score. Yes, I hear middle school students reporting that their teacher said they have to get a certain score to be recommended for an advanced or honors class, but I have never heard of a child denied access to an advanced class because of a TCAP score.

If you or your child are concerned about your child’s placement:

  • Talk to the teacher;
  • Ask to see a “body of evidence” including test scores, classwork and anecdotal observations.

Most teachers and administrators will tell you that they want to see your child in the most appropriately challenging class. How she performs day in and day out is a better indicator of class placement than a single test score.

TCAP, and the new PARCC assessment coming in 2015, are designed to determine proficiency toward a standard. That is it. By themselves test results cannot determine a gifted and talented identification any more than they can diagnosis a learning disability. The same is true for TCAP. In fact, many high schools struggle to motivate students to preform well on these tests because students know that their transcripts simply state their proficiency level amongst a sea of grades, and colleges are more interested in ACT, SAT and AP scores.

We need to help our children find that place of balance between stress and carefree lack of concern. Learning to navigate tests, time constraints and external demands is a life skill. When I don’t know a student, the first thing I ask for is test data, not because it is a definitive end point to describe who she is as a learner, but it is a place to start.

Find out why child is stressed

What I learned from the fourth-graders, and specifically from Jack, is the importance of finding out why your child is stressing.

Pull up a chair, a pillow or a piece of floor and listen to what she is telling you. After Jack and I conferred about his struggles, he went on to write pages and pages. Occasionally he asked me questions about organization and content. The question that stuck with me, however, was about process: “What do I do next week when I’m not allowed to ask you for help?” At the heart of that question is his realization that learning is collaborative and constructive, and assessment is independent and evaluative. That rub, that dissonance, was the cause of his shut down.

“Jack, what you know about reading, writing and math you know by heart. It’s in you. The questions you have about your learning show me what you know, not what you don’t know. This test is just about showing someone you don’t know not what you know, but what you can do on that day. What you do on the test isn’t going to change what I think about you or what your teacher thinks about you. Some guy downtown getting paid $10 an hour might think something different, or he might not. Just ask yourself what you want him to know about you.”

On a personal note, my oldest once took that very advice a little too far. A few years ago when the writing prompt asked him to describe his perfect day he wrote a story about spending the day with Thomas Crapper, the supposed inventor of the flush toilet. He wrote about different types of flush systems, toilet paper choices and the consistency of what gets deposited. With a smirk of an 11- year-old, he explained that his response was really a metaphor for what he thought of the test.

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