The Hidden Value in High-Stakes Tests
October 10, 2016
by Mindprint Staff
Yes it’s easy to question if there’s any real value to standardized tests, especially if you have a stressed out teen studying for the ACT. High-stakes admissions tests aside, there is plenty of value in standardized tests IF we use them in the right way. The unfortunate reality is they are more often used for inclusion/exclusion or passing judgment rather than identifying how we can help kids succeed.
Here’s what we can and should do to change that, one child at a time.
The Classic Under-Achiever. Do you have a kid who does well on standardized tests but can’t seem to perform in class? Let’s unlock that potential! Start with the understanding that every kid wants to succeed, no one does well on tests by accident, and we should never write it off to laziness. Find out what is going on beneath the surface. Is the student bored? Does he withdraw because of a lack self-confidence? Is he facing non-academic obstacles at home or school? Perhaps it’s a problem with executive functions, where he understands the material but he just can’t get organized for longer term assignments and exams. These are all problems that a concerned adult can help address by providing appropriate strategies or supports.
The Stressed-Out Under-Performer. Realistically, the more common concern is that standardized tests create anxiety for students who excel in class but not nearly as well on timed exams. It’s understandable to want to blame the discrepancy on poorly designed tests or test anxiety. But standardized tests are normed, meaning students are being compared relative to their same-aged peers, not their absolute score. So test quality alone is probably not entirely the reason. And while test anxiety is a very real concern, if the student only struggles with test anxiety you might need to explore if there is a mismatch between performance expectations and underlying cognitive skills.
Of course, it is critical to understand if the student is struggling with more generalized anxiety which can have a significant impact on learning and should be treated by a professional. But in the cases where the student’s only out-sized anxiety seems to be on tests, it might be time to investigate. The good news is that it’s clear if you identify and address the source of the problem, you will lessen anxiety and, most likely, improve performance.
Subject-Specific Difficulties Start your investigation by looking carefully at sub-test scores. Did the student only have difficulty in one or a few specific sub-tests? For example, was math fine but English lower? Was it all of English or just reading comprehension? Look at results from prior tests to see if this is a pattern or a one-time blip. Maybe you’re seeing a weaker academic skill that simply hasn’t impacted the student’s overall class grade. Consider if it’s time to give the student extra support in this particular area and be glad you found out.
General Under-performance Begin by reviewing scores from past years — are you seeing a recurring pattern or a potential one-year dip? If it’s the first dip, don’t forget to ask the student if anything unusual happened on test day. Did the proctor open the window and the student has terrible allergies? Did he have a fight with his best friend the night before? Sometimes adults forget to ask the primary source, the student, who often can enlighten us with additional information. If there’s no obvious external cause, you’ve got more digging to do, and it will start with requesting the more detailed break-down of scores.
Not Finishing Answering B to the final 10 questions does not count as finishing. Since the tests are designed to be completed in the allotted time, you will want to consider if the student is struggling with variable attention or processing speed. Are there are other signs in the classroom or at home? Does homework take longer than expected? Does the student usually need more time than peers to finish assignments or respond in class discussions? Attention and processing are essential to efficient learning. If your student needs help in these areas, you want to be sure he gets it. Learn more about these skills here.
Scattered Errors Random mistakes are often rooted in attention or self-monitoring difficulties. Standardized exams often are tests of sustained attention as well as knowledge. Are there are other signs in the classroom or at home? Upon closer look, does the student consistently do better on the first sub-test of the day than the second or third? If you don’t think attention is the problem, are you sure your child knows how to efficiently check his work? Self-checking is an important life skill and your child might need explicit coaching. Learn more here.
Health Issues Emotions, incomplete concussion recovery, and other health factors can have a big impact on one’s ability to focus on timed-tests. Even if the student doesn’t share a problem, consider if the student is facing “hidden” challenges and if it is time to offer help.
Mistakes on the Most Challenging Questions Standardized tests are increasingly designed to test students’ complex reasoning skills, not just what information they’ve learned. Is it possible that the student is a hard worker but his complex reasoning skills are not as well developed? When faced with novel problems, does he work through them on his own or wait for the teacher to show him how to solve the problem? It isn’t uncommon for high-performing students with relatively weaker flexible thinking or complex reasoning skills to excel in school but not always excel on standardized tests. While these students should be lauded for their academic success, they might need your help with strategies to develop their complex reasoning or flexible thinking skills so they can continue to excel in the classroom. Developing these skills will be important as they move into higher grades where the volume and complexity of work increases.
Regardless of your views on standardized tests, if you have students who are taking them, consider how you can make the most of the data you have.
As for high stakes admissions test, that world too might be changing. If you haven’t yet read the Making Caring Common report published by Harvard Graduate School of Education you can read this summary from the Washington Post. There are efforts in the works to lessen anxiety in the college admissions process.
Teacher-created timed math facts tests might never go away, as they can be critical in helping students develop an essential math foundation. Use our FREE Math Facts Binder to prepare your elementary students.