George Lucas Educational Foundation

How to Stay Sane During Standardized Testing Time

May 2, 2010

For some teachers and students, the glory of spring and the promise of summer have been eclipsed by the complex emotions that surge during testing season.

Before moving onto some tips for survival, I want to acknowledge the range of feelings: the grief that our system has become so focused on these tests, frustration that Obama's department of education doesn't seem to be dismantling No Child Left Behind, fear and anger about what will be done with the results (of how they might be used to evaluate teachers, principals, schools, and districts), indignation that some segments of the public, policy makers, politicians, and administrators don't acknowledge the way poverty impacts instruction, and so much more.

At this time of year, teachers and students should be gathering loads of information about the growth in learning that was made, reflecting on that growth, and celebrating the progress.

Practical Advice

However, many teachers I talk to have reached an emotional low point -- feeling resigned. Some are even considering other careers and feel that what brought them into teaching is no longer possible, "not when we spend so much time on testing and test prep," one fifth grade teacher told me last week. She also said, "Every year it's more intense: the pressure to prepare and score high. Every year we do less science, history, art, community service, performance, and gardening."

So how do we navigate these times and manage our emotions, and how can we support our students?

Step One: Build community

Find other educators who are feeling overwhelmed and support each other. Be warned: this might mean that you agree to a time limit on bashing the system -- which I support, but in limited quantities. Ultimately, it's draining and ineffective to spend too much time venting or complaining. We need to make time for emotional release and then we need to move on.

Step Two: Get informed

This is a great activity to do with the aforementioned community you're building: Learn about No Child Left Behind and how our current testing-mania came to be and learn about the efforts to curtail this madness. Knowledge is empowering, you will feel more hopeful and less alone, and more importantly, you'll get some ideas on what to do.

Here's a couple of my favorite resources right now:

Step Three: Take action

If you're critical of how standardized testing is impacting learning, if you've got something to say, say it. Write a letter to Obama, or Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Document what your students go through on those testing days, interview them and share their experiences; speak up! Join others who are organizing in protest.

Step Four: Take care of your students

Prepare them appropriately, and support them emotionally. By that, make sure to cover some basic test taking strategies with your students: how to read and understand directions, pacing themselves, doing the hardest items first, identifying obvious and incorrect answers.

But also make sure to teach them how to manage their own anxiety -- deep breathing, relaxation exercises, visualization strategies, and positive self-talk.

Make the preparation and even the test fun. The Culture and Language Academy of Success in Los Angeles uses the metaphor of "playing in a game" when it prepares for the standardized tests. This fantastic music video encourages students to use strategies and to properly prepare for taking the high stakes exam.

Finally, give students some basic information about what these tests are about, why they have to take them, and how the results might impact them. But be cautious. I know of a second grade teacher who in her anxiety told her kids that if they didn't do well, she might be fired. They loved this teacher and several of her students prepared elaborate cheat sheets. They were caught. It was a mess.

Step Five: Tell your own story

Create a counter narrative to the single-digit result that will be pinned on your students or school in the fall. Administer your own summative assessments that show mastery of content, learning in all subject areas, and development of critical thinking skills. Gather all evidence of student growth and learning this year.

Support students in reflecting on their progress. Work with them to co-develop a thick narrative of what happened this year so that the standardized test results are not the only story. Be sure to make that narrative public to parents, other teachers, and administrators.

The Final Step: Celebrate!

This will help you and your students see the fantastic accomplishments from this year. Gather the data in various forms (projects, essays, presentation videos), share, and then celebrate.

I do believe that we can reverse this tide of high stakes testing and emerge in a better place for all stakeholders. In the meantime, we need to come together, work to make this transformation happen, and employ all resources to get ourselves through it with our hearts and spirits intact.

What are your suggestions for how to manage your emotions and experiences as well as those of your students during state testing time? Please share your ideas and expertise.

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