Spring 2019 / by Amy Sloan
Standardized tests—few other things can drum up such visceral reactions! North Carolina’s homeschool law requires annual standardized testing. It is important to me that, insofar as it depends on me, these not become a source of anxiety or stress for my children. Is there a way we could not merely suffer through the requirement, but instead use it to our advantage?
Standardized tests have no intrinsic value for my family. I do not need a test to tell me that one child needs more practice with their spelling; one child is flying through math at warp speed, and one child is a delayed reader. As a homeschool mom, I’m with them all day, every day. I know their strengths and weaknesses intimately (both those measured by tests and those that aren’t). I choose to use the annual standardized tests as an opportunity to train my children for future test-taking success.
Regardless of whether you think that test-taking is valuable, the reality is that many of our college-bound children will eventually be faced with standardized tests (SAT, ACT, CLT, etc.). My goal is to have my children see themselves as good test takers. I want to reduce the pressure, anxiety, and stress that can develop over the years.
Teaching children how to take a test
In our ordinary homeschool life, we do not incorporate tests in the early elementary years. As the children get older, there are math tests and Latin quizzes along the way, but testing is not a part of their normal routine. Even the tests we do use look nothing like standardized tests! Because of this, I do not want the first time they see a test with a sensory overload of bubbles and oddly-phrased questions, to be on test day. That could cause anyone to freeze up!
While I have no desire to form my teaching or curriculum around what is on the yearly test, I do want my children to feel confident that they will know what to do when they take the test. Having some familiarity with the form of the test gives my children confidence for test day.
Preparing children for test day
- The first year they must test, I teach them how to fill in a bubble. This is not a skill used often, but there are occasions in life that it is needed, and I have found that it helps to practice ahead of time.
- I remind them that they can’t provide commentary on the questions, talk with the other students/proctor, or go to the bathroom whenever they want. This is completely opposite from their ordinary homeschool life and comes as a big shock the first year or two!
- I teach them that every test is designed to have some easy questions, some medium questions, and some questions that are hard. They shouldn’t be concerned if there is a question they can’t answer: that is just the test doing its job. It is totally okay to skip a question! At home, when they don’t understand something, we stop and figure it out. For the test, I prepare them and have them practice how to move on and not fret about unknown answers.
- I tell them that the tests are testing the teacher (mom). The people who wrote the tests do not have any idea what we studied this year, so the tests having nothing to do with my students (children) and their academic success for the year.
- I tell them to read all the answers and choose the best one.
- With older children, I teach them to skip questions that are hard and come back later if there is time. I teach them how to make educated guesses by eliminating one or two answers. Getting a good score at these grade levels means absolutely nothing. However, test taking is something they can practice now that will help them face college entrance exams.
- The first year that they will face a timed test, we do a practice run or two, so they get used to gauging their time. (Timing is not something in their normal life, so the clock can be very stressful.)
Our family has found value in taking a few short practice tests in the first couple of years of testing. We do not spend much time on this. Typically, I give them a sample test that covers each of the topics they will face on test day (math computation, vocabulary, etc.). Again, the types of questions they see on the standardized test are dramatically different from what we do on a regular basis. Demystifying the test is valuable in preventing anxiety. As we sit together, they have a chance to ask a question if they get stumped or don’t understand how a question is phrased. I can offer feedback and teach them how to think through these types of questions. We also get to enjoy poking fun at the ridiculous nature of some of the questions. It’s hard to be afraid of something you’ve made fun of at the kitchen table.
Fun snacks make everything more exciting and are something my children really look forward to each year. We pack special snack bags to enjoy on test day. My dad always made my brother and me an apple puzzle, and it became a test day staple. He even made me one when I took the SAT! Look for ways to make testing an adventurous tradition in your own family, instead of something to dread! (I have instructions for making an apple puzzle at the Humility and Doxology blog.)
Talking to your children about testing
I think one of the key elements of creating a peaceful environment is to assume your children will not have test-anxiety. Maybe you remember freezing up on test days. Maybe your child froze up or got scared in the past. Don’t perpetuate anxiety by saying things like “Are you nervous?” or “Does testing make you anxious?” or “Well, I was always a bad test-taker, too!” Here are some actions that might be more helpful:
- Ask open-ended questions like, “How do you feel today?” Don’t assume there will be a negative emotion, but if there is, it may not be the best time to try to fix it. Simply reflecting, “It sounds like you are really upset about the test today,” (or mad, sad, scared, etc.), may be the most sympathetic thing you can do at that moment.
- Ask “How did the test go?” or “What was your favorite part of the test today?” or even “Was there anything that surprised you about the test today?” instead of “Did the test go well?” or “Did you do a good job on the test?” Keep the focus on the child’s thoughts and feelings, rather than performance.
- Do not do your normal quizzing on the day or even week of the test. Don’t drill them on their math facts in the car. Don’t go over spelling rules. This extra emphasis serves only to ratchet up tension levels, not actually help their recall.
Affirming that tests do not define our children or us
Children need a Chill Mom when it comes to testing. You may feel all sorts of pressure and anxiety about your children and their tests. But it is so critical that you not communicate those feelings to your children. They need to have confidence that you really mean it when you say, “This test doesn’t matter to me.”
If deep in your heart the test does matter to you, take some time to pray and journal and figure out what your root fear is. Do you worry about what other people will think? Do you worry that this is somehow a grade on your parenting or homeschool?
We do not want our children to find their identity in their performance on a test. But, we, also, need to be careful not to put our hope of identity in our children’s performance. Whenever we put our hope in anything within ourselves or another person, fear and anxiety are sure to follow. Even when it comes to testing, we do our best and then rest upon a life we did not live!