Coping with (Teacher) Test Anxiety

One Hundred Twelve.


The average student takes 112 standardized tests between Kindergarten and 12th grade. This equates to nearly 50 days of standardized testing over a child's school career.

Sure, standardized tests provide schools with valuable data. Not only do they measure student growth, standardized tests also serve as one indicator of district progress.


However, in an era when schools are more pressed for time than ever before, is all the testing worth the cost?


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There are dozens of recognizable standardized tests in the world today. ACT, SAT, MAP, NAEP, AP, IB, FAST, STAR ... pick a few letters from the alphabet and you probably have yourself an exam.


However, one standardized test stands alone when it comes to high-stakes testing in American schools:


The state standardized test.


Although districts approach these tests with varying degrees of attention, the reality is many American schools place tremendous emphasis on state assessments.


Leading up to test administration, teachers are reminded of the importance of posting high marks and students are drilled with questions likely to be covered on the tests.


The week (or month!) of the state assessments, schools cease normal operations. Schedules are adjusted and lunches are altered. Assemblies are cancelled and field trips are postponed.


Once testing is complete, staff anxiously await their fate: Did our scores go up? Did our students try hard?

Did we beat our crosstown rival?

When a school earns high scores, euphoria rings throughout the building. Pep rallies are planned and pizza parties are scheduled. Kids earn extra recess and teachers praise one another. The principal is a hero and all staff are rockstars.


When a school earns low scores, a black cloud of despair consumes the building. Focus groups are planned and intensive training is scheduled. Kids earn extra worksheets and teachers point fingers. The principal is a screwup and all staff are failures.


Sound like your district?


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A short time ago I interviewed George Couros on my educational leadership podcast. George is a prominent educational speaker, consultant, and the author of The Innovator's Mindset and Innovate Inside the Box.


George resides in Edmonton, Alberta and has the unique opportunity of looking at American schools from an "outsider" perspective. With this in mind, I asked George to share the biggest difference he's noticed between Canadian and American schools.

His answer? Standardized testing.

“There is a such a focus on standardized testing (in American schools). It is ridiculous."


George went on to share his philosophy on standardized testing:


"When I was a principal, we improved our standardized tests, but it wasn’t because we placed a large emphasis on the tests. It was because we placed a large emphasis on taking care of our kids.”


"No teacher grew up saying, 'You know what I want to do when I get older? Test kids. That will be awesome. I just want to spend my life testing children.' Rather, they talk about making a difference."


"I think we have become so obsessed with testing, we have lost sight of why we became educators in the first place."

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What is the focus in your district?


Taking care of kids?

Or doing well on tests?


Unfortunately, the latter is where the priority lies in many districts.


Having worked in a handful of school districts across three different states, I've experienced standardized testing in a variety of settings. In some districts, testing is one of many things that matters. In other districts, testing is the only thing that matters.


I've learned the perception of standardized testing comes down to one thing: leadership.


Leaders who freak out about tests and agonize over results create an atmosphere where others reflect similar behaviors. Alternately, leaders who respect testing but downplay its enormity create an environment where others mirror this level-headed approach.


So how can leaders create a level-headed attitude towards standardized testing?


Given most educators place a lot of pressure on themselves, leaders cannot sit back and sit idle. Instead, leaders must proactively communicate a "testing isn't everything" philosophy at several levels within the district:


Administrators: You may work in a district where school leaders are rumored to be on "hot seat" after one round of poor tests scores. While leaders should be held accountable to data, to suggest their job is in jeopardy as a result of one test is unreasonable. Instead, administrator job performance must be based on several data points over time. This stance gives leaders confidence to perform their job without constantly worrying about job security.


Teachers: Think administrators get nervous about standardized tests? Teachers are on a whole new level. Rather than be riddled with anxiety as the testing window approaches, teachers need to be reassured that one set of test scores does not define their abilities. Leaders should look for opportunities to downplay the importance of testing and remind teachers that professional competence is more than assessment results.


Students: Don't forget about students when it comes to downplaying high stakes testing. Students often believe standardized tests are all that matters, and one poor test score could doom their academic future. With test anxiety at all-time highs, leadership must take steps to educate students that assessments are just one element of success and self-worth should never be measured by test results.


Community: Districts must educate the public about standardized testing's limited role in measuring school performance. Rather than allow community members to make snap judgements based on a couple data points reported by the local media, leaders need to take ownership in explaining the district's comprehensive approach to measuring student achievement.


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Yes, tests scores are important.

Yes, tests aren't going away.

Yes, years of poor scores must be addressed.


However, let's stop placing so much emphasis on the test.


Instead, let's place emphasis on taking care of kids.

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