George Lucas Educational Foundation
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We are facing a problem with tests in education.

Students are strongly influenced by the implied messages they deduce from what is being tested, especially when the test is emphasized as high stakes in terms of their grades. Further, they can draw dangerous conclusions about their own role in the learning process by what is done with the assessment results.

Putting the Assessment in Context

We've all taken tests, and we've felt either proud or ashamed of the results, often following a tense waiting period. Students share these feelings and may assume that their intelligence level is reflected on a given test, especially when told that significant portions of their grades are based on their test performance. Deepening the challenge is the limited range of questioning and response. This naturally discredits such tests as authentic measurement tools in the minds of students, and instead relegates them to mere "academic" status as another oppressive set of numbers.

We can mitigate against students' acquiring this damaging mindset by helping them understand that any one test on a subject does not demonstrate all of the understanding and knowledge they have developed -- and then adapting our grading, scoring and performance reporting accordingly.

We can also communicate -- both before we give the tests and when we return the scores -- the scale, purpose and limitations of this particular assessment. The idea here is not to discredit the assessment, but to authenticate the full learning process in the minds of the students, their family members and other shareholders in education.

This suggests including feedback with frequent formative assessments, feedback that should be both corrective and specific regarding progress toward the learning goals.

Preventing Assessment-Related Damage to Learning

If your students do not find summative test scores reflective of the extent of their learning, help them recognize other ways that you have seen them demonstrate their learning about the topic, whether through group work, projects, discussions, homework, or even the questions they ask. With this understanding, students' emotional responses will not cause the reactive stress response in their amygdala that restricts higher cognition.

Further, they will be able to reflect on any valuable feedback offered by the assessment results. Since you have helped them understand the limitations of the test, their brains will be open to these discussions instead of having the flow of information blocked by their stress response.

Fostering this kind of metacognition after the assessment can help students discover what was missing from their studying that resulted in gaps in their knowledge during the assessment. And more importantly, you will be giving them the immediate reinforcement of realizing what they did right in their preparation, which will encourage them to use those strategies in the future.

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Gwen Pescatore's picture
Gwen Pescatore
President Home & School Assoc, #ParentCamp Organizer, Co-Moderator #PTchat

Couldn't agree more! If we want our children to take ownership of their learning, it is important that they understand why they are being assessed, what the results mean, what to do with that information after....and the limits of what a test can measure. That they (we) are all more than a number. I think families & schools need to remind children of that by allowing them time to explore their interests and passions at their own pace and in their own way. When their lives are full of various experiences and knowledge not attained for a test, it's easier to see beyond the number.

Jodi Hokenson's picture
Jodi Hokenson
High school equivalency instructor/test proctor from Western New York.

Thank you for your post. At this moment I am teaching for two high stakes tests with very different audiences-one audience is high school dropouts; the other is college entrance. Therefore, I do not have the opportunity to practice the metacognition after the summative assessment because they move on to jobs and college. I can, however, place more emphasis on the communication part of setting the high stakes test in context during formative assessments. I am always searching for ways to lower any reactive stress responses and communicating the big picture context certainly is one great way!

Melanie Gibson's picture
Melanie Gibson
4th grade math and science from Jacksonville, FL

I agree that many students find that their test scores reflect who they are as a student. That is our fault. We have tied so much to a test score, especially mandated state tests. The pressure that is put on teachers is then transferred to students. I find it absolutely ridiculous to have 3rd graders worried to death about a test score. I wish that the state would allow us to show other ways the students have demonstrated learning.

Judy Willis MD's picture
Judy Willis MD
Neurologist/Teacher/Grad School Ed faculty/Author

Thank you responders for taking the time to confirm the problem and help assure other educators that we are in this together. Even your awareness and concern is surely making a difference in lowering the stress level in your students.
Keep them smiling and help them make positive connections between learning and joy and they'll have more dopamine reserves in times of stress.

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