Family Life Magazine
November 2001

Guiding Your Child Through Testing Mania

The reason there are suddenly so many standardized exams — and how your kid can stress less while scoring well


By Sally Squires

The letter arrived without warning from our son's school. Inside were scores from an achievement test that neither my husband nor I knew Colin, a third-grader at the time, had taken. Fortunately, his results were good, but it upset us that our child had been given a major test without our knowledge and that the marks would go on his school record. Even more maddening, when we requested a conference with the head of the school to discuss his scores, she sheepishly admitted that she didn't fully understand them herself.

Welcome to the brave new world of educational tests. Whether your child goes to public or private school, these exams are now part of life.

Of course, this is not the first generation of Americans to undergo this type of testing. The difference these days is that the scores carry so much more weight. In 1994, Congress reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which ties federal funding to testing. So school budgets and teachers' salaries are becoming more dependent on standardized-test results in a growing number of school districts. This puts students under tremendous pressure to perform well in the core subjects: math, science, language skills, and social studies. Poor scores can mean summer school, being held back a grade, or even not graduating — leading to anxious kids, overwrought parents, and overburdened teachers.

On the positive side, testing is supposed to measure how well schools, teachers, and, by comparison, school districts are doing. In short, it's a system-wide report card. Standardized tests can also serve as a reality check — and a motivator — prompting students who might otherwise goof off to spend more time on studies. "These days, a lot of kids rush through homework so they can send instant messages, call friends, and watch TV," says Mel Levine, M.D., a pediatrician and author of Keeping a Head in School.

"Over the years, these tests have provided good quantitative information about students," notes Patti Harrison, Ph.D., professor of school psychology at the University of Alabama. That said, the biggest beef many educators, parents, and politicians have is the amount of class time allocated to test preparation, and the resulting pressure-cooker atmosphere. In Fairfax County, VA, one elementary school devoted an entire quarter to teaching only social studies to fourth-graders to get them ready for the state achievement test. That left the last four weeks of the school year to catch up on the other subjects.
In Washington, DC, an elementary school sent packets of practice tests home before spring break, so parents and kids could prepare for the exams. And a Baton Rouge, LA, school posted a "countdown to test day" notice board.

Not surprisingly, some parents are drawing the line. In a Scarsdale, NY, school, nearly 70 percent of 290 eighth-graders — encouraged by their parents — refused to take a standardized test, a protest against what their moms and dads called a test-prep culture that fosters rigid instruction.

Many educators bristle at the trend as well. In Harwich, MA, eighth-grade teacher James Bougas has been reprimanded once and suspended twice without pay for refusing to give the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System test for the past three years. "I'm not opposed to standardized testing," says Bougas, who has taught middle-school history for 29 years. "But when they attach such high stakes, it is punitive to students. It forces you to teach to the test and trivializes teaching."

Sally Squires is a staff writer for The Washington Post and covers family issues for national magazines.

Do let your kid know how he did, says Ruth Peters, Ph.D., author of Overcoming Underachieving. Whether he excels or misses the mark, use this advice from Peters.

·  Keep your disappointment — or elation — in check. A student with a low score will feel worse if you're glum; one with a high score may feel he has too much to live up to if you're over-the-top excited.

·  Avoid focusing on numbers. Give your child the ranges in which his scores fall: above average, average, needs work. For a struggling kid, find a positive focus. Say, "You're weak in math now, but stronger in word comprehension — probably because you did a lot of reading recently." For a student who did well, don't rave that he's "a genius." Instead, you might note how the extra time he put into the practice test paid off: "Your commitment to your studies shows." The trick is to praise the effort.

·  Nix negative words. If a kid says he's "an idiot," be adamant that such terms are unacceptable.

·  Empathize. If his scores are low, say, "It's okay to be upset. Some of your classmates probably feel the same way."

 — Kathleen Jacobs

Does your child feel stomach butterflies long before exam day? And does anxiety cause him to test below his abilities? Douglas Reeves, Ph.D., author of The 20-Minute Learning Connection and president of the Center for Performance Assessment in Denver, offers these tips to put a jittery kid at ease.

Downplay the test. Instead of referring to it as D day, a problem, or a hurdle, talk about the test casually, perhaps during dinner or while driving in the car. Ask how he feels; it can be soothing just to have someone listen to his fears without judgment.

Understand that a child's biggest test anxiety is usually that he'll disappoint his parents. So relax your youngster by reassuring him, "I'll always love you — no matter how you do."

Play the what-if game. Encourage him to verbalize a worst-case scenario; doing so will let him put his fears into words and gain a more realistic outlook. Ask, "What if you took a test and didn't know anything?"

Monitor your mouth. If you fret about the exam, so will your child. Stay away from grown-up words like "stress" and "anxiety," which can press a youngster's panic button.

Don't dismiss the test. The opposite extreme — saying, "The test doesn't mean anything" — won't relieve nervousness either. A kid will become confused, especially if the school places a lot of emphasis on doing well. What if you're adamantly opposed to standardized testing? Say, "I don't think this exam is perfect, but you must still make the effort."

Build familiarity. Your child can't do his best if he doesn't know the test's ground rules.

Turn the tables by having your child create a practice test. After he reads a short story, your kid can dictate questions about it; you type them up. Seem silly? In fact, this builds critical-thinking skills, forcing him to work through the logic behind multiple-choice questions.

Learn relaxation exercises. Read Ready...Set... R.E.L.A.X., by Jeffrey S. Allen ($24, Inner Coaching), which shows kids how to use visualization and breathing techniques to overcome difficult situations.

Teach optimism. Your child needs to know he can bounce back (even during an exam). Use a mantra, like: "It's okay not to know every answer. The school just wants to know how I'm doing."

 — Kathleen Jacobs

If you want your child to perform as well as possible — to get into a special program or school, for instance — follow these recommendations from Bruce Bracken, Ph.D., president-elect of the International Testing Commission.

Don't wait until the last minute to check your kid's academic progress. And refrain from telling her to just study more. This will only make her anxious.

Do meet with or phone her teacher a couple of months before the exam to assess what help your child needs. Ask: Which subject is most difficult for her? Does she get nervous taking tests? Does she have trouble finishing timed assignments in class? How does her work compare with classmates'? What is the date and time of the test? What is at stake for my youngster? Also, request the testing company's address, phone number, and website; most firms will provide parents with more info.

Don't go workbook crazy, which can turn kids off to learning. Bookstores carry a wide range of study materials, but just because your child is having a third-grade math-standards test doesn't mean the appropriate material is available in the third-grade workbooks at your store.

Do select one CD-ROM or workbook that specifically ties into the upcoming exam and is recommended by your school's learning specialist. And use the web as a resource for practice questions. For example, the Learning Pod (,1120,2-21889,00.html) offers test tips, interactive tutorials — which track your kid's progress over time — and the lowdown on specific states' standards.

Don't assume that hiring a tutor is necessarily an overreaction to an upcoming exam. Consider help if your child is falling behind. Your principal or school learning specialist should be able to provide individual contacts. Tutoring centers like Sylvan ( and Score! ( also can zero in on your kid's academic weaknesses.

Do speak up if your child has a learning disability, such as dyslexia, or other special need. Request, in writing, to the teacher and principal that accommodations be made for her. For example, a kid with a reading difficulty will often be given extra test time.

 — Marli Guzzetta lists common mistakes students make and offers test-taking tips. compares test results by state and includes exam questions. is the home page of an advocacy group working to end the flaws of standardized testing and to ensure fair evaluations of kids.

Testing! Testing! What Every Parent Should Know About School Tests, by W. James Popham, Ed.D. ($19, Allyn & Bacon), explains what these exams can and can't do.

 — Sally Squires

Family Life Magazine, November 2001


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