So you’ve received a convoluted form with rows and columns and colors and numbers and it’s supposed to tell you important stuff about your kid. You have no idea what the colors and rows mean, but you start freaking out immediately because these are the results of a test. And tests are scary. They judge us. They compare us to our peers. They tell us if we are good little humans. They make serious predictions about the outcomes of our lives. Right? More and more we hear the word assessment instead of test and we’re supposed to feel better about it... but somehow the same old test-taking anxiety feelings you had at the end of eighth grade are sneaking up and you start to imagine your 5 year old never getting into college. Woah! Let’s slow down, break it down, and get you on a more positive, peaceful track.
Why do teachers, schools, districts, colleges and everybody else use tests in the first place? Teachers, if they’re good ones, assesses their students frequently to answer several very important questions about the students and themselves. Tests are meant to show a teacher not only what the class has learned, but how well their teaching approach has been working. Often, teachers will write their own tests, called (you guessed it) teacher-developed assessments, so they can be really specific about what has been covered in class. Hopefully these are given often for two reasons: it gives the teacher lots of check-ins with the kids to track their progress accurately, and it gives the kids many chances to earn scores so that no single mistake is life-altering. Please log that one away for later discussion; no test in and of itself is life altering for your child.
There are also plenty of positive effects that assessments in the classroom can have on students’ learning. A little bit of anxiety (not the debilitating kind) can actually serve as a great motivator for learning. It also can cause the brain to kind of perk up and take in and put out information more efficiently. When kids know a test is coming, not only do they study more, but knowing that the test is coming can actually influence the cognitive process as they study. Their expectations can influence them to either cram and memorize, or to construct meaningful connections with the material (Ormrod, 2017). So, tests are actually a great tool for learning, not just the hammer at the end of the chapter that let’s you know how smart you are.
Why all the district and nation-wide standardized testing? Are those really good indicators of what my child knows? Expert test developers are paying attention to 4 main factors when they create theses tests: Reliability, Standardization, Validity, and Practicality. Reliability refers to the consistency of the test, or in other words, how often we get a similar result when we follow the same set of rules. Validity is what you are probably most interested in -whether the test really assesses what it is meant to. When the writers are sitting down coming up with content and problems, they take these two components seriously. They want to probe for just the right piece of info to make sure the knowledge is securely cemented in a student’s brain. If the questions are too easy for most kids, the reliability might be there, but the validity might not be.
The two other parts of the puzzle, standardization and practicality, come into play when considering how best to make sure everyone is being tested fairly and that the test goes smoothly. It should have the same questions for everyone, obviously, but it should also use language appropriate for certain age groups. And of course, we want to make sure everyone gets the same amount of time, otherwise why bother comparing scores?
About comparing scores, a few things for you to keep in mind, and a few to make sure you pass on to your test taker. Don’t forget that these tests are not only meant to show schools what the students know, but to show the districts and beyond what the schools are doing. For better or worse (we will skip the worse for the time being) schools are judged according to these scores, too. They show administrators which programs or curriculum may or may not be serving students well. Your kids shouldn’t have to prep for these things, they are supposed to be indicators of the education they are getting, not make you or them feel inadequate or “behind”. Let your kids know that the tests help the schools become better at doing their jobs. They should do their best and go out to recess like nothing big happened.
But what about those really big ones... the SAT, ACT, the ones that tell colleges if my kid is smart. So, universities are not big, dumb blobs that don’t use critical thinking skills. They are aware of the pros and cons of standardized testing, and they take many things into consideration when making their decisions about applicants. They do lean on these “high-stakes” tests for a couple of reasons. It helps them to make determinations about mastery of subject matter, readiness for their programs, and how applicants compare to one another. But, they are not blind to the fact that high-stakes scenarios create environments that can hinder a stellar performance. For now, these tests are the best way to get lots of information about lots of candidates’ and their long academic careers relatively easily. But there are lots of ways to help admissions desks see your student more clearly and give them reason to consider your candidate.
Educators are constantly on the lookout for ways to make tests of all kinds show us what we actually need to know about our students. Many times, simply emailing or calling your student’s teacher directly can do a lot to improve the test-taking strategy being used. I know plenty of teachers who see tests as teaching instruments themselves. They give practice tests and allow for retakes, because they understand the complexities involved. Students’ abilities may seem to shift completely on a given day, and different testing styles motivate different types of thinkers. They know this, they studied this, they like your kids! Shoot them a call, share your concerns, and see what happens.
Ormrod, Jeanne Ellis., et al. Educational Psychology: Developing Learners. Pearson Education, 2017