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Terrified of Tests?

by Dr. Polly Treviño
Our oldest son started second grade this year.  Recently, I was looking through his second grade science guide, which also contains his weekly science homework.  (The science homework, sadly, was all multiple-choice questions.)  Our son noticed me reviewing the booklet, and he joined me looking over my shoulder.
“Mom,” he said very urgently, “Do you know what is the most terrifying thing?”
Terrifying?  Trying to sound nonplussed, I said, “What is?”
“This!  Let me show you.”  He flipped through the booklet to find page 2 and read the following aloud to me:
These strategies will give the students a structure for reading carefully and thinking critically about each question.  Students are going to use these strategies with warm ups, homework, checkpoint tests, unit tests, benchmark tests, and STAAR.
Pointing to the abbreviation STAAR, he said, “THAT is the most terrifying thing.  I don’t know if we have to take it this year or not, but …” His voice trailed off.  “It’s supposed to be the HARDEST test,” he continued.  (STAAR is our state’s annual high-stakes assessment of student knowledge and skills.)

I sat in stunned silence.  I should not have been stunned, for I am well aware of the effects of high-stakes testing in public education.  But hearing these words come from my second grader was jarring.  He is seven years old, and he fears a test that he will not take for another year and a half.  How is that possible? I did not even know he knew what STAAR was, much less that he feared it.  Given that he could read the instructions for parents on the science guide, he is likely to show mastery on the exam when it’s time to take it.  However, awash in his fear, he doesn’t realize this.

I don’t recall talking about STAAR at home.  We prefer to emphasize learning as opposed to testing in our home, and I made a conscious choice not to mention it.  After all, he’s only seven! So, I can only assume that he has learned to fear STAAR at school.  I don’t blame my son’s teachers for this. Rather, I believe he is a product of the public education assessment system as a whole.   A system that reduces creative, capable, and complex children to a number.  A system that measures all of a teacher’s efforts as valid only if the students answer enough questions correctly.   A system that quantifies all student learning, so rich and varied, into a single score on a single measure on a single day.

I am trained in quantitative research, and I understand the efficiency and psychometric adequacy of our current system.  I value the easily collected and easily summarized data that tests can give us.  However, it seems to me that, in the present assessment system, tests have become the outcome of education instead of learning.  When homework is always formatted in multiple-choice questions, when students are encouraged to use their “strategies” for every single assignment (in math, reading, and science), when students are inundated with tests (See the sundry tests listed in the science booklet instructions.), and when all of this starts as early as first grade, the message that children receive is that the TEST is what is important.  What should be important is the LEARNING, but instead our students believe that doing well on tests is the purpose of education.

Cue the fear and anxiety, because the next message that children absorb is:  “The test is the ultimate outcome.  If you do poorly on the test, then you are not good.”  Somewhere along the way, to students themselves, assessment became not a measure of learning but a measure of worth.  In essence, the system communicates that PERFORMANCE = WORTH.  Students begin to believe that if they don’t pass STAAR (insert any other assessment here), then they have no value.

It is easy to see why so many students have test anxiety.  For if a student believes the test somehow measures worth, then of course he will fear the outcome.  The performance-worth equation is one we have to break.  We need to help students see that their value is not found in their performance on tests.  They have value because they are children of God, created in His image, ransomed by Christ on the cross.  PERFORMANCE WORTH

This is what I tried to convey to my sweet seven-year-old.  I told him:  “If you put forth the effort to learn and learn as much as you can, learn with joy and learn deeply, then you have no need to fear a test.  If you fear the test anyway, then ask Jesus to help you with your fear.  Give it to Him and He will replace it with peace and comfort.  Remember, the test tells your teacher what you have learned and where you have room to grow; it doesn’t say what you are worth to our family and to God.  We will love you no matter what happens.  You are a child of God, created in His image, and He will love you no matter what happens on this test.”

Are you an undergraduate getting ready for a midterm? You might need to hear this, too.  Are you a psychology/counseling graduate student preparing for orals?  Are you an education graduate student preparing for comprehensive exams? Listen up and take this in!

PERFORMANCE WORTH.   The test does not measure your value as a human being.  Because of Salvation, you need no longer be a slave to your fear.  You are a valuable child of God.

Note:  The views expressed in this post are my own and in no way reflect the position of Houston Baptist University, the College of Education and Behavioral Sciences, the HBU Educator Preparation Program, or other faculty contributors to this blog.

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