How can teachers best support kids during test season?

Teachers' attention to "growth mindset" and other motivational strategies can highlight the anxiety they and their students experience each spring as testing season steps into high gear. 

Courtesy of Chandini Langford, Evergreen Elementary School
Teachers at Evergreen Elementary School leave motivational messages on students' desks during high-stakes testing.
Courtesy of Chandini Langford, Evergreen Elementary School
The "Growth Mindset" wall in Fifth Grade Teacher Chandini Langford's classroom at the Evergreen Elementary School in Woodbury, New Jersey is a constant reminder to students not to give up on their efforts.

As students enter high stakes testing season, teachers across the country evolve into new roles: from educators to personal therapists and life coaches, digging ever deeper into their bags of tricks to get kids motivated to perform.

In Woodbury, N.J., Evergreen Avenue Elementary School fifth-grade Teacher Chandni Langford has been celebrated for her test-day tactic: using each student's desk top as a white board to leave personalized, inspirational messages in dry-erase marker.

"Yovani, I'm not telling you it's going to be easy, but it is going to be worth it! Do your best! - Your Teachers #GrowthMindset," reads one of the desk tops in Ms. Langford's classroom. Two donut holes and this message was also left for each student: “Donut stress. Take your time and do your best.”

The school district has been following the "growth mindset" concept developed by Stanford University Professor Carol Dweck, an influential theory pushing learners of any age to rethink their assumptions about ability, helping them see learning as an ongoing process of development, rather than thinking of school work and tests as a measure of innate talent or knowledge. When students believe they have the potential to improve, they often do, Professor Dweck's research has found. 

"We found that students' mindsets – how they perceive their abilities – played a key role in their motivation and achievement, and we found that if we changed students’ mindsets, we could boost their achievement," as she wrote in a piece for Education Week last year. 

For Langford, and other educators in her district, Dweck's work is part of their strategy to motivate students' performance on the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), a standardized test.

"In my classroom, we talk about growth mindset all the time," Ms. Langford tells The Christian Science Monitor via email. "Every day, I put a new growth mindset message as the background on the Smart Board. As a class, we discuss what the quote means. Then, I print it out, and add it to our 'Grow Mindset Wall.'" 

"It has come to a point where I don't even have to say anything anymore," she adds. "If a student gets frustrated and says something to effect of 'I give up,' the other kids shout out growth mindset quotes to that student."

"The kids have really internalized this concept," she writes. 

However, not everyone's a fan of testing, especially the transformation of teachers having the freedom and time to personalize learning to having to focus on the psychology of performance confidence strategies.

But for many parents and educators, the tests themselves, no matter how well framed for kids, place undue stress on students. 

"Personally, as a parent, I am not a big fan of the anxiety high stakes testing places on both the student and teacher," Rodney Jordan, the chairman of the Norfolk Public Schools Board, tells the Monitor in a telephone interview. "Assessments are important, but, the idea that we have these high-stakes tests once or twice a year and we have to get everybody all motivated and excited during that one period has done more damage to our educational system than it has brought benefit."

Although the tests are meant to capture the effectiveness of what teachers and their pupils have worked on all year, critics say that the exams have fundamentally shifted the focus: teaching to the test, rather than risk the repercussions of poor performance on a standardized exam.

"I have spoken with dozens and dozens of teachers who tell me their role in the classroom has changed in a way that, in their opinions, is not good," Warren Stewart, a retired school superintendent, teacher, principal, and Norfolk, Virginia school board member, tells the Monitor.

Dr. Stewart, who sat on the Virginia teacher licensure panel for four years, says he's a fan of teachers, but not the tests they now feel forced to build curricula around. "No longer are they teaching what they know the students need to learn, but are only doing whatever is necessary to negotiate the high-stakes test," he says. "Now it's teaching to the test, psychology and making them test confident and emotionally ready for the moment," he says.

Today's approach to test-taking may have its roots in the 1963 book The Sheepskin Psychosis by John Keats, Stewart suggests. The book explored how top private schools made students both test-competent (knowing the subjects well) and test-confident. 

"A college degree is no proof that its bearer has learned how to learn," Mr. Keats noted at the time – in part, because private schools had discovered the art of not just teaching well, but testing well. 

The National Education Association, the largest teacher union in the country, has mourned the loss of content-driven teaching and pushed for less standardized testing and more individual learning.

Jordan says that by focusing so much effort on one testing week a year he worries teachers are losing their common core ambition, "They didn't get into this profession to help kids pass one test a year. They chose this profession to teach children the curriculum and all the things around it that our kids need to know in order to do their best in life."

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.