More on Testing Preparation-- how do our KIDS view the testing situation?
Susan Richman, 3/31/2010
Susan Richman is the co-editor of PA Homeschoolers and a homeschooling evaluator in Pennsylvania. She regularly tests children in PA to help families meet the testing requirements of the PA homeschool law, administering both the Terra Nova achievemet test in group situations, and the Woodcock-Johnson Individual Achievement Test for students who need a one-on-one testing situation. She also leads AP US History online with homeschool students all across the US, and helps these kids learn to handle the high-stress AP exam situation.
Back to our on-going discussion of helping our kids feel reading and comfortable with standardized testing. We've discussed so far the first factors that can have an impact on testing: demographics, physical environment for testing, and the parents' view of the testing situation. Now on to how our KIDS view testing requirements. Here are some things you may want to ask yourself:
Does my child understand why we're doing testing? Have I communicated with me child about testing requirements of our homeschool law or regulations? I'd suggest being 'matter-of-fact' about testing requirements-- that it's something we need to do, and so we're doing it. And we're going to also use it to help *us* gain some insight into how things are going, and to just gain experience with this sort of testing. Know that some kids get really worried about standardized testing-- they view it as an 'all or nothing' sort of affair. They reason, erroneously, that all will be lost if they 'flub up', sometimes imagining that the next day they'll be plopped immediately in public school or 'failed' a grade level. Assure kids that testing is just one measure of progress, and that no one expects all kids to do 'super'. Here in Pennsylvania, testing is just one thing that school districts and evaluators look at to gauge progress-- there is also the portfolio of work and the personal interview with the evaluator, and the evaluator's eventual letter. Families can definitely demonstrate an excellent overall program, with progress being made, even if test scores on a particular testing day are not stellar.
- Does my child know what to expect from the testing day? Have I helped my child visualize what the day will be like-- the setting, the time frame (both how early they'll need to get up on the day of testing, approximately how much 'sitting' time to expect, what sort of mid-test 'breaks' to expect, when it will be over, etc...). Some kids are much more 'easy going' than others-- for these kids it's perhaps not quite so crucial to have a detailed visualization of what to expect. But for others, this can be crucial. If you need to email the test-giver to ask for details about these items, do so-- your child will feel much more comfortable. Some kids may specifically need to be helped to understand that there will be other kids there, that talking out loud while testing is going on (or reading out loud!) will not be allowed. Here, I'd emphasis the fact that having a quiet atmosphere is to help all the kids do their very best-- it's your child's way of *helping* everyone else there have the best possible chance at doing well. Again, you know your child-- if he's especially impulsive, you may need to practice the self-control needed to not blurt out answers. This can be done in a playful way-- perhaps with the parent 'acting' the part of the student and the child pretending to be the testing proctor. The 'student parent' could then, humurously, while pretending to be taking the test, blurt out answers, read out loud, ask noisy questions, try to get up and jump around, while the 'test proctor child' tries to maintain order and tell what's really expected.
- Does my child have a sense of what types of material will be covered on the test? I remember once being a little surprised to hear a casual remark made by an experienced homeschool mom of 4 kids who always aced any achievement test or SAT exam they ever took. She said matter-of-factly, "Why would I ever send in my child in to take a test that they wouldn't do well on?" She didn't obsess over preparing for testing with her kids-- but she realistically made sure that SHE knew what type of material would be covered, and helped her children be ready for this. If she gauged that a child wasn't ready, they didn't do that test at that point-- she wanted to set her kids up for success, not failure. Her kids gained real confidence by knowing what to expect from testing situations. They used available testing preparation materials, such as the Scoring High books that we sell in our online store, and with her high school kids, they used available College Board materials to always be on top of what the test format would be.
- Does my child show signs of test anxiety? This can be very challenging to deal with-- and sometimes test anxiety can surprisingly show up in a child who previously did well on testing. I one year had an experience where a student had done fine and felt confident in early years of group testing with us. But now in 8th grade, she was feeling stressed-- all unknown to the mom. The student didn't understand what testing sections were focusing on-- was she doing a social studies part, where she had to concentrate on remembering details, or a general reading comprehension section where she might use a different type of reading appraoch? She opted to real slowly in order to remember details-- and then panicked when she realized that she hadn't had time to complete a section. Her mind was racing for the next part of the test, and she just couldn't focus in-- all became a blur and she began to mark items randomly, and was on an emotional roller-coaster. She could no longer really approach the task at hand, and it was fast becoming a disaster situation. We were able to salvage the day by doing the individual Woodcock-Johnson test as an alternative-- within this one-on-one situation, where timing was not a factor and the format of each section could be more clearly explained to her, she worked with real dedication. She even regained her sense of humor, and felt relaxed and like herself once again. This mom realized that we can't always assume things will go just as they have in the past, and that her daughter might have benefited from some more direct test preparation work.
- Sometimes test anxiety can be realistic .... is that what is happening with my child? Sometimes a child may be very anxious about testing because they realistically understand that they are quite a bit behind in general academic ability. Say, if a child is 8 years old and considered a 3rd grade by age, but he is just in the very beginning stages of learning to read, he may be very anxious about the idea of group testing with kids who may be quite comfortable with reading. It's a bit like the 'exam dread' dreams some of us have had -- you know, the dreams where YOU suddenly have to take an advanced exam for nuclear physicists-- when you had never taken an advanced science course and had absolutely no background on the material. You'd be realistically anxious! And in that scenario the best idea would be to somehow change the testing 'requirement' so that you wouldn't have to take such an inappropriate exam, sometimes the best course when you as a parent realize that your child's fear are *reasonable*, based upon realistic assessment of current readiness, is to change to a more appropriate individual test rather than a group test at 'grade level.' I can't tell you how many times parents of a child who is realistically lagging far behind typical grade level expectations, have sent a child in to take a group test anyone-- "just to see how he'll do." I think there have been times when a parent may somehow vainly hope that suddenly reading will become 'clear' to a child in the testing situation. I've never seen this happen-- but I have seen kids become very embarrassed at their lack of ability compared to other kids, and I've seen kids cry, and I've seen kids feel 'stupid' in group testing situations. Think how this will make your child feel upon approaching the next testing day in the future-- all those powerful and painful memories will surge through the child again, and the child may be even less able to do his best.
- Does my child understand the format of the exam and what types of thinking are required? I remember one year a 5th grade student came in to a group testing day, anxiously asking if handwriting would be tested. She had little concept of this being an all multiple-choice test, where she'd just have to fill in little circles on an answer sheet. For my Advanced Placement US History students, on the other hand, it's very important for them to understand that they will have to write essays by hand -- three essays, in fact. And there's a certain format for one of the essay -- the Document-Based Question -- where they'll be given a selection of about a dozen historical primary documents of varied types, that they have to incorporate into their essay discussion. The more concretely kids understand how the test works, what they'll need to do on each section of the test, the better their experience generally is on the exam. I remember the year one of my AP history students reported back after the exam that one of the public school students was shocked to find out that they actually had to write an essay for the exam-- somehow their teacher had never mentioned that little fact (or to give the teacher the benefit of the doubt, maybe this student hadn't been listening!). Practicing with relased back exams or with Scoring High achievement test practice materials can all help kids at all levels truly understand what this test will involve. If homeschoolers in PA opt to take the PSSA (Pennsylvania System of School Assessment) test should definitely be VERY familiar with all that's available free online to help students prepare. See this site:
Families and kids need to know that on the PSSA, kids do need to generate some of their own answers, and write short essays to provided prompts or explain some math procedures.
Does my child know some simple relaxation techniques to help him feel centered and at ease? I call this the 'childbirth classes' approach to test preparation. Many of us may remember learning about very specific ways to relax our bodies and minds when imagining labor at various stages-- to this day, if I tell myself "contraction begins", I immediately and involuntarily relax completely. I trained myself to do this-- and kids can be helped to learn basic relaxation techniques that can help them also. There are some good resources online to help with this. Here are a few you might want to consider:
Here's one interesting 'test anxiety' story from my own daughter, Molly, when she was about 10 years old. Molly was a very confident test taker who always thought testing was quite energizing and fun-- maybe in part because we didn't do testing on any sort of daily basis at home! She was very bright and generally felt very well-prepared for any test she took. One year, during one of our group testing days, Molly was going to be part of the group. She was delighted to see a homeschool friend she knew, and the two girls were excitedly talking before the test started. The other girl was very nervous about the test, and said to Molly something like, "Oooh, I'm so scared I won't do well! Look, I've got goose-bumps on my arms!" Girls tend to want to 'reciprocate' in kind when talking to one another, so Molly 'agreed' that she too felt really nervous... and she soon could feel 'goose-bumps' rising too. She shared with me afterwards about this whole experience-- of realizing how easy it was to make herself feel anxious, and she could immediately tell that she couldn't think as well when in this state. She quickly made the 'switch' to her usual mode of going about testing-- relaxing and feeling like it was just a fun challenge. She realized that this girl was in the habit of always making herself nervous and anxious-- it seemed like the only way to 'react' to testing. Fortunately, Molly's 'backlog' of experiences gave her another way to react, and she could shift over to it-- this other student had never had seemingly never thought of that option.
I hope some of you can share here approaches that have helped your kids face testing with a positive frame of mind so that they can indeed do their best.
Next topics to be discussed coming weeks:
Students' test taking skills, and alignment of the curriculum with the test.
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