The Debate Over Standardized Tests

testing toolsWhether you are pro or anti standardized testing, you or your child are going have to confront them. They are a part of our education system, and since the NCLB (No Child Left Behind) Initiative, their value in our education system has skyrocketed. Whether you’re a third grader prepping for a state wide assessment exam, or a professional gearing up for the GRE, when asked to perform on a standardized test, you are essentially being asked to “think within the box” (or bubble). Standardized tests are a beast of their own: they require not only that you access retained information, but can decode a question, process it, use critical reasoning to find an answer, switch from topic to topic effortlessly, all under pressure to perform.

Proponents of standardized testing argue that “teaching to the test” is not so terrible, as it keeps teachers on track and committed to making students motivated to excel in a goal-oriented fashion. In this way, “teaching to the test” can also easily identify what areas a student needs to work on in a definitive way. And lastly, performance anxiety is a part of life, one that we will all have to face eventually, and standardized testing is one way for young people to practice excelling under stress. Students can also learn to manage the stress they experience under these conditions rather than let it control the entirety of their scholastic testingexperiences.

On the other hand, detractors of standardized testing argue that test performance is not an accurate, and certainly not holistic measure of learning. NCLB is more about policy making than it is about a commitment to education and the empowerment that comes from learning, thinking critically, the ability to ask rather than answer questions. “Teaching to the test” might have temporary effects in a student’s performance, but is not a reliable way of measuring academic growth. (As an aside, I think within “teaching to the test” there are various methodologies to explore aside from rote learning and regurgitating facts — but that’s another post!) We just have not figured out how to use test-based incentives to improve education (which is the goal of education based policy making). There is also much to be said for the objectivity of standardized test questions (meaning that questions are not in fact objective) and even with appropriate accommodations given to students with learning differences, uniform questions do not address the complexity of learning styles.

Given all the pros and cons of standardized testing, one thing is clear: a test cannot measure some of the most valuable learning skills like empathy, creativity, resourcefulness, integrity, and critical analysis. Testing relies on the notion that there is a right and a wrong answer, and while that may be the case with many situations in life, there isn’t always an absolute truth. Low test scores can damage a student’s self-esteem and create a poor self-image, especially the younger we start mandating tests. However, testing can also build resilience, teach students how to reason under pressure, perform under stress, focus, and complete a task. There’s no easy answer to this debate, but there are solutions on how to approach standardized tests.

  • Preparation is key.
  • Organization and methodical study habits can be motivational.
  • Manage the importance you or your child put on testing.
  • Separate how you think about learning and achievement.

If you are seeking accommodations DO NOT WAIT, before filing the appropriate paperwork — whether that means an IEP report or private testing from a neuropsychologist. In order for the Board of Education or private testing board, like the College Board, to grant accommodations (like extra time, having questions read aloud to students, a computer and or scribe) students must have a track record (with the appropriate paper trail) that precedes the test date.

 

 

 

 

The Value of Resilience

One of the most important skills we can teach our children is the value of resilience. What exactly is resilience? According to psychologists, some of the factors that make someone resilient include a positive attitude, optimism, the ability to regulate emotions, and the ability to see failure as a form of helpful feedback. Even after a misfortune, blessed with such an outlook, resilient people are able to change course and soldier on. (Psychology Today) We all experience setbacks, disappoints, and failures — perceived or real. Resilience is the quality to rise up and come back more determined than ever.

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I’m not going to sugarcoat the reality of our culture today. Kids (children and teens) must confront myriad stressors: at home, in school, in their social lives, from the media, and most of all from themselves. And you can bet they are internalizing these pressures to be “perfect,” regardless of how amazing we tell them they are. We live in a culture of comparison, where at every turn we seem to measure success by achievements. Now, I’m not saying that ambition is a negative thing. By all means, we want our children to  set high standards for themselves and do everything possible to reach those goals. But as parents and educators, it is tantamount to give young people tools to cope with disappointment (when they can’t meet their goals, or if meeting their goals does not give them the pay-off they imagined). Expectations are suburb: but children need strategies to manage expectations lest they become all-consuming. Everyone faces challenges that are out of our control, but the trick is to reclaim agency and build a strong sense of internal character.

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Here are some ideas and tips on how to build resilience in your child or teen at home and at school. I can’t think of a better way to start off the New Year!

  • Encourage Mentoring Relationships. Help your child to develop a mentoring relationship with an adult who is outside of your immediate family. This will build positive connectedness with the world and a vision of the world as a place for growth and opportunity.
  • Build A Sense of Agency. The more a child feels in control of his or her actions, the more he or she will build a sense of internal control, even in a world where ultimate control is an illusion. By making decisions on their own, children will understand the nature of consequences — positive and negative, and little by little they will develop a sense of agency.
  • Teach Children To Manage Expectations. Expectations are a natural part of existing in the social and scholastic world. And while a holistic approach to managing expectations promotes individual expectations over collective ones, the reality of life is that students must deal with external expectations at some point. Work at home or with an outside professional to develop strategies on how to teach your child ways to effectively manage expectations without letting them be all-consuming.
  • Limit Social Media. While children (and adults too) might find it impossible to live in the world without engaging in social media, it is completely possible! We are all aware of the studies that link social media with depression and anxiety, especially in females. Social media fosters what is known as a “cultivated self” — as people get to handpick the aspects of themselves to create a profile, which essentially is an illusory self. This is a hard concept even for adults to grasp, let alone children. The expression, FOMO (fear of missing out) is one result of social media infiltrating the minds and souls of children and teens who engage with it regularly. Many of my students tells me they use social media to help keep up with assignments and work “virtually” with their peers on schoolwork. I completely believe them. But social media can suck away a student’s precious time, and in many cases can become addictive and foster competition and feelings of low self-esteem. By “snooping” on other people’s lives, social media can trigger feelings of resentment and envy. You might want to suggest that during periods of stress, or especially intense times at schools, that students deactivate their accounts (temporarily) to avoid the temptation of logging on and getting distracted from the realities of their own lives. Encourage activities outside the house, and talk with your children about the difference between perception and reality.
  • Advocacy. Encourage your child or teen to become involved with an advocacy cause. By standing up for the rights of others, students will feel empowered and worthwhile and think outside of themselves.
  • Mantras and Affirmations. We are becoming a nation of slogans. Unfortunately, people often repeat slogans without fully understanding them or making them personal and relevant. But, by making your own mantras or affirmations, you can reclaim a slogan and make it meaningful. Encourage your child to come up with a positive slogan to start each day. Words are powerful, both consciously and unconsciously. Saying is believing!
  • Model Resilience. Parents and educators are humans, and it is impossible for us to model resilience all of the time. However, we must do our best not to berate our failures (perceived or real) because children and teens are watching our every move, even when we think they aren’t (or even when they roll their eyes at us). The more open you are to the world as a positive place despite the inevitable disappointments, the more your child will see it as one.

For strategies on how to foster resilience in children and teens, check out this fantastic book, Building Resilience in Children and Teens: Giving Kids Roots by Kenneth R. Ginsburg, MD, MSEd, FAAP.