Unschooling Articles from Live Free Learn Free

Standardized Testing Traps: Ideas for Minimizing the Effects of Tests on Students
by Ann Lahrson Fisher

Excerpted from Fundamentals of Homeschooling: Notes on Successful Family Living.

Whaddja get?  What is your SAT score?  Your achievement test percentile?  Your GPA? Your IQ?  If a student has the right combination of numbers on the right piece of paper, doors open to that student that will not open to other students, regardless of general merit.  Human potential is reduced to a series of numbers based on a performance of just a few hours.  Those few hours change lives.  Welcome to high stakes testing.

Standardized tests, at their best, may indicate the progress of large groups against a bell-shaped curve.  At their worst, standardized tests are used as a deciding indicator of individual progress or group placement.     

Do you value creative thought and imagination, organizational skill, analytic ability? Sorry, those get but a nod, if that.  Moral character, work ethic, compassion, tenacity and focus? Untested.  What about the many kinds of nonverbal learning?  Math, yes, but other areas?  Sorry.

Standardized tests are minimally useful for measuring individual progress.  Used as a single indicator, the tests can give an idea of a child’s general performance against predetermined standards of general knowledge.  Even test makers agree that standardized tests excel at measuring student performance on – standardized tests!

Standardized tests are well known by educators to be unfair and biased.  Test scores and test taking success have been shown time after time to be best correlated to parental income or other social status indicators not related to actual learning. Tests are blatantly or subtly biased toward a white upper middle-class worldview.

Who decided that the only worthwhile learning is learning that can be measured digitally?   Is it possible that, in failing to promote “un-standardize-able” traits, society has systematically created the unexpected and enormous social dangers our children and grandchildren will face?  But, I digress.  Let’s move onto the dehumanizing side effects of testing.

Dehumanizing Side Effects of Testing

After administering standardized tests for many years, first in public classrooms and more recently to homeschooled students, I am acutely aware of the drawbacks of this type of testing. As a homeschooling parent, I agonized over whether to test my children.  In all testing venues, no matter how kindly, I’ve observed that standardized tests teach significant lessons, lessons that are, if not outright dangerous, of no benefit to students whatsoever.

The following messages are the anti-learning, dehumanizing lessons that our children often internalize when they take standardized tests:

• My worth can be summarized by a single mark on a paper.

• Thinking is not valued; getting the ‘right’ answer is the only goal.

• Someone else knows what I should know better than my parents or I do.

• Learning is an absolute that can be measured.

• My interests are not important enough to be measured.

• The subject areas being evaluated on the test are the only things that are important to know.

• The answer (to any question) is readily available, indisputable, and it’s one of these four or five answers here; there’s no need to look deeper or dwell on the question.

• The purpose of learning is to get a high score. High test scores are the only purpose of testing.

• If I score very well, I am better than other people who do not score as well.

• Poor test scores mean that I am a failure. If I score poorly, there is nothing I can do to change it. Why try?

• I haven’t learned to read yet. I am not smart.

• Since I must be tested once a year so I can homeschool, my parents and I have to spend the rest of the year preparing.

• The test was too hard. I am not smart.

• The test was easy. I don’t have to learn any more.

• The test was easy [hard]. Public [home] [private] school kids are dumber [smarter] than I.

• The questions on the test are what is important. What I have been studying is not important.

• I have to get a higher score next year to show that I am learning.

• I am just a member of a herd that must be tested, without individual value.

Do you agree that standardized tests can be powerful teachers?  If so, you must ask if these are the lessons you want your children to learn.

Minimizing Negative Side Effects

Despite these many drawbacks to and negative lessons from testing, I find that I am a voice crying in the wilderness.  Not only is a deaf ear turned to the drawbacks of testing, the stakes seem to be raised to a higher level with each passing year.

Until the testing mania reverses itself, many children will need to take tests to achieve their goals.  These suggestions may help parents minimize the negative effects of standardized testing for their children.

Unlearn Negative and Undesirable Attitudes
If your child has already picked up some of those negative side attitudes, take some time to help her “unlearn” that effect.  Talk about testing and what the testing experience has been like for her.  Sharing your concerns can help your child develop a balanced perspective about testing.

Use Alternatives to Achievement Tests
If you must test, can you use a placement or readiness test that evaluates what the child is ready to learn?  These tests are somehow less terrifying than tests that measure what you may or may not have “achieved.”
If possible, use a narrative evaluation, portfolio, or curriculum plan to indicate your child’s abilities and knowledge.  Any of these can give accurate feedback about what the child knows, his capabilities and needs.

Prepare Gently
Teaching to the test, albeit a much-maligned exercise, is universally practiced in the high stakes testing game.  Some preparation eases anxiety and familiarizes the students with testing procedures.   Be aware, though, that too much preparation may backfire and create unneeded anxiety. 

You’ll want to seek a balanced approach.  For example, many people schedule a general math review a few weeks before testing time as part of their normal schedule, but without emphasizing the upcoming test. 
Try to moderate the amount and type of preparation to meet the individual child’s needs and to avoid deepening test anxiety.  Avoid scheduling tests if stress is high, such as when the child has been ill or when the family is going through major change.

Taking practice tests can be helpful.  Practice tests generally focus on learning the format of the test.  Good practice tests have the types of items that children can expect to encounter in the actual test and include tips and suggestions.  Give your child some of the more common test taking tips, including such strategies as guessing at answers she doesn’t know, considering all of the possible answers, reading directions carefully, and coming back to difficult problems later.

Avoid too much preparation and study with young children and first time test takers. Until children have a strong sense of their abilities as test takers, work to build confidence instead.

Provide a Neutral Testing Environment
Consider this: standardized tests were designed to be administered in the regular classroom by the regular classroom teacher.  For the homeschooled child, the regular classroom is the child’s own home and the regular classroom teacher is you, the parent.  Your ideal neutral testing environment is right there in your home with you giving the test.

Unfortunately, it is often difficult, and sometimes illegal, for a parent to acquire standardized tests to administer to her own children.  If the ideal is simply not available, what is a parent to do?

First, try to find a test administrator who is himself a homeschool parent.  If that is not possible, find a test administrator who is sympathetic to homeschooling and understands the importance of having educational options.  If you need a sympathetic tester, a referral from your local or state homeschooling group is a good bet.  You can learn from other people’s errors and successes.

Ideally, ask the tester to come to your home to administer the test.  You can work crossword puzzles or catch up on your reading. 

Another possible testing environment is in the home of the tester.  Find a tester who is compatible and who likes children.  I have administered both private family tests and small group (up to six or eight) tests with good results.  Other neutral environments might include these:  a friend’s home, someone’s office that you can borrow for a few hours, a private study room at the library, a community room, or a Sunday School room at your church.

The last resort is to have your child tested in a classroom situation, either privately or at the local public school.  The occasion of taking a standardized test is not the ideal time to introduce your child to thirty strangers, even if she knows some of the students or the teacher. For some homeschooled children, an unfamiliar classroom environment can be quite stressful, detracting from their ability to focus on the test at hand.

Delay Testing
Do what you can to avoid testing young children.  Children younger than age eight or nine are widely erratic in their response to a test anyway, and achievement tests are known to be invalid at early ages.  Late blooming readers may suffer terribly when faced with a test that demands reading skills that they don’t yet have.

Some children do well on the first grade test but become a bundle of nervous anxiety by grades three or four.  I’ve observed that, when children do not take tests in the earlier years, they seem somewhat more at ease when they do take a test when older.  I surmise that avoiding early testing may lessen test anxiety.

Test Less Often
Avoid annual testing if possible, particularly for young children.   Annual (or, gasp! more frequent) testing causes parents and teachers everywhere to teach to the test.  Don’t blame yourself.  You can’t help it!  If your state law requires that you test your children annually, you may have to work to change the law, but meanwhile, you may feel a need to teach to the test.

In general, though, test less often (whatever that means to you in your situation) or not at all.  Remember that academic testing is a rather young phenomenon and its worth, while highly lauded by some, is far less proven than you are asked to believe.

Test More Often
I know, I know, I just told you the opposite, so chalk this one up to a life that is full of contradictions.
More frequent testing is helpful in a few specific instances.  For example, if your older child has extreme test anxiety AND personal goals that require high stakes testing, taking tests more frequently can be a good practice ground for him to become more comfortable.

Teens who are confident about testing tend to put the testing chore in the category of “dumb things I’ve got to do today.”  Sometimes, the only way to turn the MAJOR EVENT of testing into the CHORE of testing is with lots of practice.

Balance Your Own Attitude
Are you, the parent, a Nervous Nelly at testing time?  Parents feel that in some ways they, not their children, are evaluated at testing time.  And no matter how sure we are that tests don’t mean that much, we want children to have a good testing experience.  So, we worry and stress out.

It’s no wonder you feel anxious, but your anxiety may overshadow your child’s efforts. Stifle your inner Nervous Nelly.  If you can’t keep from obsessing, have your calmer spouse take the child for the test.

The parents who best prepare their children for test taking are the ones who are relaxed. When students are older, parents can encourage them to view the test as a game to be played or a puzzle to be solved.  Trying to figure out what the test writers had in mind intrigues many teens into putting forth their best efforts.

If you take this approach, remind your child that she is to “play the testing game” hard, doing her best, but enjoying the process as well.  Then, back off and let your child have her own testing experience. 

Who knows?  Maybe your child will join that tiny club of students who have told me, “I just love taking tests!  How soon can I do this again?”

Selected Resources

Achievement Testing in the Early Grades: The Games Grown-Ups Play
By Constance Kamii, Ed. 
1509 16th Street NW
Washington, DC 20036-1426
(202) 232-8777    (800) 424-2460    
fax:  (202) 328-1846   resource_sales@naeyc.org     www.naeyc.org    
Read this book before you have your very young child tested.  Kamii suggests that the ill effects of achievement testing in the early years far outweigh any advantage.

Bayside School Services
PO Box 250
Kill Devil Hills, NC 27948 
(800) 723-3057   (252) 441-5351
orders@baysideschoolservices.com    www.baysideschoolservices.com 
Testing materials are made available by a homeschooling family to homeschooling families. CAT/5.

Family Learning Organization
Kathleen McCurdy
PO Box 7247
Spokane, WA 99207-0247  
(509) 467-2552 
homeschool@familylearning.org www.familylearning.org
Tests and scoring available, including MAT and CAT.

Scoring Hi
220 East Danieldale Rd.
DeSoto, TX 75115-2490
(800) 843-8855   (888) 772-4543    
fax: (972)228-1982      www.sra-4kids.com
Test preparation materials for K-8.  Available for CAT, CAT/5, CTBS, Terra Nova, MAT 7, ITBS, Stanford
Achievement Test, others.

Seton Testing Services
Seton Home Study School
1350 Progress Drive
Front Royal, Virginia 22630
(540) 636-9990   fax: (540) 636-1602 
Standardized tests, CAT-E Survey, for homeschooled students.

Living a learning lifestyle has been central to Ann’s life since the birth of her now grown children. This article is an excerpt from Ann’s book Fundamentals of Homeschooling: Notes on Successful Family Living, which explores key learning lifestyle topics such as play, conversation, togetherness, exploration, and much more. In addition to being a conference speaker and workshop leader, Ann is working on her next book, “The Laptop Way to Teach Reading and Writing.”



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