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Coping With Test Anxiety

by Mary Ellen Sullivan

The specter of standardized testing for homeschoolers has a power to raise anxiety levels in homes to the point where a normally happy homeschool changes its entire rhythm -- parents lose patience even more quickly than usual, children become confused and nervous, and learning patterns are disrupted. If this sounds familiar to you, it may help to put the whole idea of standardized testing in a different perspective. For one thing, this anxiety is not unique to homeschoolers. Across the nation, the dependence on standardized tests for all types of school-related evaluations is coming under fire. A 1990 report from the National Commission on Testing and Public Policy,  From Gatekeeper to Gateway: Transforming Testing in America,” concluded that “current testing, predominantly multiple choice in format, is over-relied upon, lacks adequate public accountability, sometimes leads to unfairness in the allocation of opportunities, and too often undermines vital social policies.”

An article in Education Week by the then president of the National Education Association, Keith Geiger, advocated “assessments that will replace--not merely add to--currently required standardized tests” in schools. The article, entitled “Tests, Trivia, and Tears,” charged that “these tests do nothing to improve teaching or learning. They merely inform schools how well their students can regurgitate a given set of knowledge compared to other students at the same grade level.” Mr. Geiger recommended better assessment methods such as portfolios of student work and timed student performance tasks.

So much for not feeling alone. The schools, as well as homeschoolers, are under legal requirements to administer standardized tests, and their results are just as often misused. But at least the tests were based on the school model of learning. Many homeschoolers have withdrawn from school at least in part because they don’t believe that model is the best way to enhance learning. If tests are anxiety-producing in the schools, they are much more so in homeschools, where they are even more foreign to the learning process.

So, how to handle the anxiety in your own home? First, keep in mind how relatively unimportant these few hours are to your child’s real education. Accentuate the positive to yourself and your child. Don’t focus on exceeding the law’s “acceptable yearly progress” benchmark of the 50tthpercentile; this approach serves only to increase test-related anxiety. Just encourage your kids to approach testing as a challenge to do their best and see how well the scores show what they know.

Parents who consider themselves to be “temporarily” homeschooling, who feel their children may return to a conventional school at some point, feel more pressured to maintain that magic 50th percentile at the appropriate grade level. If you are concerned about this, consider these points:

·        50% of all students in any grade in any school are expected to score below the 50th percentile. This doesn’t usually obstruct a particular student’s promotion to the next grade.

·        Functional level testing, that is testing a child at the level at which s/he is working regardless of grade level, is encouraged by the test publisher. So, even if your child “should be” in fifth grade but is actually doing fourth grade work, a fourth grade test would be more appropriate and could be defended to school administrators on this basis.

·        Younger children notoriously perform poorly on standardized tests, in school or out, and the ability of their scores to predict current or future performance is minimal. Consider other options for assessment, and if you do test, interpret the scores as the very rough estimates of achievement that they are.

·        Retesting is permitted and even recommended in situations where a test score does not appear to reflect the child’s actual achievement.

In conclusion, probably your best defense against test anxiety is that same faith that led you to homeschooling in the first place. Do you really think your child is doing better at home than in school? Do you and your child both agree that home is the best place from which to base learning? Do you think your child is learning and progressing? Do you feel your child’s growth is progressing in other, equally or more important areas than just those particular facts on this particular standardized test? If yes, quit worrying!

Get all the test-taking practice you can, but make it fun or at least don’t make it the sink-or-float choice that it can appear to be.