Test Your Attitude

Eliminating our own negative feelings about standardized tests can actually help our students do better on them.

By Kathe Taylor, Sherry Walton

One afternoon, in a sunny elementary-school library, we were talking with a group of teachers about children and testing. Our task was to help teachers figure out how children could help one another learn to demonstrate their knowledge on standardized tests. Not long after the conversation began, however, we noticed that one of the teachers had begun to shift nervously in her seat. Unable to contain herself any longer, she finally blurted, "Standardized tests make me twitch! I hate them!" Though laughter filled the room, many of the teachers nodded in agreement.

The "Twitch Test"
Many teachers may not realize that their attitudes and nonverbal messages about testing can actually affect test scores. This knowledge is important because teachers' attitudes toward standardized tests are frequently negative. Intentionally or not, we communicate these attitudes to students: There may be offhand remarks to colleagues on the playground about how tests are a complete waste of time, or perhaps a telltale lack of enthusiasm when we announce the upcoming tests. Our words may encourage children to do their best, but our tone of voice and our facial expressions may betray us. So, before we focus on teaching children how to be successful on standardized tests, we should examine our own attitudes. How would you score on your own personal "Twitch Test"? (See below.) If you answered yes to three out of these four questions, you should deal with these aversions before your students spot them. The teacher mentioned earlier told us she practiced in front of a mirror, rehearsing until she was able to talk with her students about standardized tests without conveying a negative attitude. Her ability to be neutral in her presentation was a step up from her previous attitude.

Get Rid of Excess Baggage
However, educators should go further than neutrality. Ideally, we should entice children into viewing tests as an interesting and manageable challenge. We should develop test-preparation programs that go beyond the mechanics of test taking to an understanding of how to approach unfamiliar situations and solve problems (skills needed in tests and in life). But before we can accomplish these goals, we must rid ourselves of our own baggage. In our workshops with teachers, we always invite them to write down on paper every word or phrase that comes to their minds when they hear the words "standardized testing." Invariably, their lists are peppered with language that expresses worry, stress, concern for children, and frustration. Rarely does anyone communicate joy or delight, although some teachers will acknowledge that they themselves enjoyed the competitive challenge of tests when they were kids. After the teachers call out their words, we invite them to crumple up the papers and throw them away. We ask that for the duration of the workshop, they leave their baggage on the floor, and seriously undertake the challenge of changing their attitudes for the sake of their students. We hope that you will also accept this invitation.

Tests Matter
Educators know that, despite what we might wish, tests matter in children's lives. Standardized test scores are becoming increasingly powerful in the national conversation surrounding education and in the lives of individual children. School districts and teachers are held accountable for test results. Scores are used to include and exclude children from academic opportunities, to make retention decisions, and even to determine who will earn a high school diploma. And no less important, scores affect children's perceptions of their own abilities. Given the potential impact of scores on kids, we have to do what we can to help them do their best. Yes, tests matter in students' lives. So do our attitudes. Take your own personal Twitch Test. Becoming aware of your negative emotions about testing is the first step toward getting them under control, making you even more effective at helping your students tackle the tests.

How do you score on the "Twitch Test"?
1. When you think about your own test-taking experiences as you were going through school, do you twitch?

2. When you think about taking class time to prepare kids for standardized tests, do you twitch?

3. When you think about talking with parents about their children's test scores, do you twitch?

4. When you think about reading your school's test scores in the local newspaper, do you twitch?

Kathe Taylor, Ph.D., and Sherry Walton, Ph.D., are coauthors of Children at the Center: A Workshop Approach to Standardized Test Preparation, K-8 (Heinemann, 1998).

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    Homework and Tests, Test Preparation, Teacher Tips and Strategies