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More Thoughts on Helping your Kids be Ready for Testing…. How parents’ attitudes can make a difference….
Susan Richman, 3/8/2010

Susan Richman is the editor of PA Homeschoolers, and has been doing group and individual testing with homeschool students for over 20 years. She's also helped all four of her own children approach testing with a positive attitude, from the required 3rd, 5th, and 8th grade testing in PA, to the SAT exam and Advanced Placement tests.

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In my last posting about getting ready for testing, I listed the six variables of testing that can make a difference in your child’s ability to really demonstrate what they know on testing day. Today we’re going to look at how our attitudes as parents towards testing requirements can be key—and how we might be able to adjust these attitudes in a positive direction.

I’ve met hundreds and hundreds of parents at our testing sites over the last 20 years, and have seen lots of different attitudes. I’m going to imagine here a couple of ‘composite moms’. First I’ll give you a highly upbeat scenario—and then a practically full-blown panic attack scenario. Most of us probably fall somewhere in between these extremes—but thought this might give us a good way to tackle this topic, and see things with some greater perspective.

I’ve seen parents coming in feeling encouraging, cheerfully confident, and eager to introduce their little 3rd graders to me. Their kids generally reflect these attitudes. Sometimes these moms tell me that they have a special ice cream sundae outing, or a trip to a favorite nature center they don’t usually get to visit, planned for right after testing—it’s an annual tradition that all their kids have enjoyed. The moms often bring books to read or planning materials to go over while their child is testing—they’ll stay at the testing site doing their own work, maybe even in the testing room just to be a quiet strengthening presence. These parents get there well on time—and you know they’ve all had a nice breakfast too, and everyone is comfortable but neat and clean and relaxed, as if clothes were laid out the night before. I can sometimes imagine that these parents might have added encouraging words to a family bedtime or morning prayer for their child to feel comfortable and confident and ready to do well. They often want to sell back the teacher’s guide to the Scoring High test book that they purchased from us (we pay $6 for these at our testing sites)—often adding how helpful these materials were in letting them all know what to expect. And of course these families pre-registered—this was on their radar screen and family calendar well in advance, and the directions to the testing site were printed out the night before. The child has a pencil box with 10 sharpened #2’s, plus a little pencil sharpener. The mom might ask if her child can have a small snack or drink during a break in the testing morning—pointing to a nice lunch box all packed.

Then on the other extreme are the parents who come in looking like they’d rather have root canal work done than be there—I can almost see the sweat breaking out as they imagine their child sitting down and starting in on The Test. Further, they are often late—and everyone is looking more than a bit frazzled. And they forgot to register online—can they still sign in? Sometimes a mom explains that she had her child practicing all last night—in fact, till 11:00pm! She hopes her son will be ready, but he didn’t do too well at home and was really confused and frustrated by all the questions—they’d had quite a scene but she made him keep on with practicing (all this said in front of the child… I can see the child shrinking inwardly…). She was using a borrowed book from a friend for this practice time—and it was just one grade level higher than what he’d be taking, so she thought this would be OK to use. The mom then let’s me know that her child has always had real trouble with reading, tends to get sick to his stomach when stressed, and he doesn’t listen well. She’s really worried he won’t do well (again, all this said right in front of the child….). And she forgot to bring pencils—can her child borrow one? (I will add here that one time I was zooming my two boys, in 7th and 10th grades, over to a nearby university to take the SAT exam very early one Saturday morning—the younger one testing for a talent search program, the older one testing so he could be a companion to his little brother—and I realized part way there that I’d forgotten pencils… I screeched the car into a grocery store lot, frantically found pencils on the store shelves, and hastily if sheepishly asked the check-out woman if she’d mind very much sharpening a few of these pencils for us??? Of course, my boys later shared that the test proctors had a huge stack of pencils ready to hand out….). I ask if the mom might want to stay in the testing room—she says absolutely not, as she realizes she’ll make her son even more nervous by her own keyed up anxiousness. She can feel a migraine coming on…. Does anyone have some Ibuprofen?  And is there a fast-food joint nearby where she can get her child a snack for mid-morning? They didn’t have time for breakfast. The mom might add that she herself always did terribly on these sorts of tests growing up.

Which child do you think might have the better chance of doing well on the test that day??  

Now, sometimes kids can do just fine on testing even with a very frazzled and anxious mom—but very often these seem to be self-fullfilling prophecies, and the child absorbs high anxiety from the mom and indeed has a pretty tough time. A sense of helplessness or even despair seems to pervade—definitely a sense of ‘negative energy’ surrounds the day for the family.

And sometimes kids of the calm, ready, well-prepared moms with the positive attitudes might do poorly—but generally this type of mom will very calmly be accepting of this, and let her child know that she knows he’s done his best, made it through the morning intact, and they’ll still celebrate afterwards. They know standardized testing is not a ‘make or break’ affair—that they have other ways under the PA law to demonstrate progress, that they’ll be able to communicate effectively with their evaluator about all their child has learned this year, and that they know that over time this child is going to do really well. There’s still a sort of ‘positive energy’, no matter what the scores. These parents will see the good in the situation, and view it all as a helpful learning experience.

There are some other attitudes parents might have, too. A parent may feel that all standardized testing is absolutely stupid, not worth preparing for—all tests are biased, idiotic, just out to trick kids or pass on politically-correct values. The parent might be very angry that the PA homeschool law requires testing—what a waste of a good day! Or a parent may truly feel that they are the ones being tested—and they are very worried about what the results might show. Will they have trouble with their local district superintendent? What will their evaluator say? What will the grandparents say—or even the Dad who is still a bit skeptical of the value of homeschooling?  Other parents seem to view testing as a sort of intriguing game-for-the-day – and like any game, this one is fun to play and worth doing your best. They have the attitude of being their child’s coach and cheering section—and they instinctively know that warm encouragement and matter-of-fact acceptance of the whole testing requirement seems the most helpful way to handle it all. Some parents feel that testing will probably give them some good perspective on what they are doing—if nothing else, it might indicate that no changes are needed, or that something needs to be redirected a bit. They might encourage their kids to thank me for doing the testing day—and they might express their own thanks too for the nice easy way to meet the state law testing requirement. It was convenient, they met some nice homeschooling families who live near to them, everyone felt relaxed. These families seem to know that having an ‘attitude of gratitude’ may be a key part of finding meaning in any situation—they use even a day of required testing to add to their store of gratefulness.

What sort of attitude have you had when dealing with standardized testing? Any changes you’d like to make in the future? Does your child ‘catch’ your attitude—for better or for worse? Share your thought in the comment section and add to the discussion.

And tomorrow we’ll look at attitudes that kids might have towards the standardized testing program. Stay tuned!


Comment by Amy, 3/8/2010:

I guess I have a different take on the achievement tests.  My kids were cyberschooled for years and were subjected to the PSSA tests for years.  They had to take them in every grade, except kindergarten, and my kids always faired very well on them.  The first year though, I remember feeding my poor children blueberries and hard boiled eggs for breakfast before the test, because I had previously read an article that claimed it was "brain food" for kids.  But, after they took them once, and did well, I just didn't stress over them so much.  I put more stock in their abilities and less in their pre-testing breakfast.  The thing that was difficult for me was getting the kids to their testing sites, and worrying about them being with total strangers for hours, especially when they were very young.  In some grades the testing took more than one day to complete too.  It was hard to juggle life around that when you have more than one child.  Even more of a stress factor was the fact that losing a day or two for testing meant that you were very likely getting behind on your schoolwork.  Cybers claim to have copious amounts of flexibility, but, after being involved with 2 different ones for a period of 5 years, I can honestly say that their flexibility claim is seriously exaggerated. 

We've been traditionally homeschooling for 3 years now, and it seems easier in comparison.  I hold the keys to the schedule.  We test when it's convenient for us.  I don't have my kids formally prepare for them.  Maybe I would if they struggled with reading comprehension or something like that.  They just take them, and their reward is no regular math lesson on testing day.  I look at the standardized tests as a formality that has to be done to comply with the law.  I don't resent the law at all.  I think it's important to gauge a child's progress and see where certain strengths or weaknesses lie.  I tell my kids to do their best and not stress over these tests.  I remind them of when I was in school taking these same kinds of tests, and how a teacher once told my class that if we were ever in doubt of an answer, to always mark bubble "C".  He insisted that there was a slightly higher percentage of correct answers with bubble "C" than with any other bubble.  My kids always chuckle no matter how many times I tell that story.  I guess public school mentality seems very strange to a child that has always been homeschooled. 

Will I always have this laid back attitude towards testing?  I hope so, but the SAT's are fast approaching for my kids.  To me, that's an entirely different animal.  Colleges don't look at elementary school achievement tests, but they do look at an SAT score.  So, I may be one of these frazzled moms that you described very soon.  Time will tell...

Response to this comment by Susan Richman, 3/8/2010:
Amy, these are wonderful thoughts-- thanks so very much for sharing here! Haha, and I *love* that cute story about 'in doubt, bubble answer choice C!' Reminds me of an hysterical cartoon a student in my AP US History class sent me-- the caption was "The Year the College Board Messed with Kids' Minds"... and the image showed 3 high school students 'thinking' while bubbling in their answers. Each of them was noticing that EVERY answer turned out to be 'C'. "What??!!! Wait, this can't be... but no... oh no!!!" etc. It was a hoot-- your old teacher would have enjoyed it :-). AND I think your sharing this funny story from your past with your kids has really served to relax them-- nothing like a good laugh to dissolve worries!! Very good point that these elementary level tests will NOT have any major impact on a child's future education-- and in Pennsylvania there is no requirement to score at a certain 'cut-off' score either. I sometimes suggest to parents who have a child who struggles academically that they write an 'explanation' to put right next to test scores in the their portfolio, sharing honestly about the child's challenges with typical grade level work, and that this is WHY they have modified their program to help the child have a sound base. Great point, too, re/ being able to relax about testing when we realize our kids generally do just fine on these types of measures. You'll find that for the SAT you'll probably want to do some focused preparation work-- but this does NOT need to involve $800 tutoring classes or daily work on it! There are terrific practice materials -- including great free online 'daily SAT Questions' at the www.collegeboard.com site. Some families actually use the College Board SAT practice books (available in our online store...) as part of their English language study program-- or part of their math work. And I'm sure you'll soon find that indeed your kids do just fine on these tests.... and may even be looking at possible National Merit Scholarship standing (from a high score on the PSAT taken in fall of 11th grade...). Definitely much testing can be a real drain on the schedule-- and a disruption in the week, especially with little ones. Many tests, in order to be 'comprehensive', have gotten mainly LONGER.... taking up more and more time. When we choose a test to use in our testing service, we always go for one with a 'survey test' option-- these are the *shorter versions* of the test. Enough is enough :-). Thanks for your great post-- love to hear all the different ways families have viewed testing! Best wishes, Susan Richman, editor PA Homeschoolers


Comment by Aldrea Reese-Brown, 3/8/2010:

Thank you so much for this letter!  I admit, I have been more of the second, almost-panicked mom than the first.  I had the opportunity to show up at a test site, quite unprepared, children rushed and not well-rested ... or choose a later date and do our best to work with the minimal time we had left before our test date.  Before I even clicked on this note, I thanked the Lord for his mercy in reminding me to check testing schedules so I could even make a choice instead of just "making do" and decided to wait and prepare.  Now, we look forward to the testing date, pulling together like a good team, and enjoy the time and learning from this new experience as Pennsylvania homeschoolers. 

Response to this comment by Susan Richman, 3/9/2010:
Haha, we ALL 'live and learn' and sometimes we need to actually 'do' things that aren't so positive or helpful, to spur us on to changing our perspectives and our approaches. Glad you have some *choices* re/ testing :-). Yes, 'pulling together like a good team'-- love that image!!! THAT's great homeschooling :-). Best wishes, and thanks so much for responding! Susan Richman, Editor Pennsylvania Homeschoolers


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