You might think that high-stakes testing is simple: students are handed a test, given identical instructions, and left alone to fill in the answers. Teachers whose students do well are rewarded, while teachers whose classes perform poorly are penalized—prompting them (hopefully) to improve.
While the system's simple in theory, high-stakes testing is actually anything but. In addition to fostering curriculums that "teach to the test" instead of focusing on being well-rounded, the pressure to perform well has led a number of schools (including Herzog Elementary in Missouri, as well as Atlanta, Washington, DC, Los Angeles, and Houston) to cheat outright by filling in scores for students or offering test materials in advance. More and more, it seems, high-stakes testing is doing the opposite of what it's meant to do: help kids learn.
A 2005 study titled The Inevitable Corruption of Indicators and Educators through High-Stakes Testing reports that the reliance on high-stakes standardized tests "has serious negative repercussions that are present at every level of the public school system...by attaching high stakes to test scores, those involved and the test scores can be corrupted."
If you suspect your kid's learning is taking a backseat to test-taking skills, don't feel like you have to idly sit by. Take control of the situation by identifying the ways testing is negatively affecting your little learner, and find strategies to overcome them. To help your little one learn what's really important, use the seven tips below to beat high-stakes stress and get your child the well-rounded education he deserves:
- Get your game on. High-stakes testing promotes the idea that kids who perform well are superstars—and those who don't are failures, meaning it falls on you to help your child recognize that he's important, regardless of how well he performs on any particular exam. Avoid getting caught up in the win/lose mentality by instituting weekly family Monopoly nights where the focus is on fun, not winning or losing. Recreational sports are also a great way for your budding David Beckham to see that there's more to a game of soccer than the final score.
- Follow your instincts. If you receive exam results and sense that something's amiss, such as your kid's scores seem artificially high or show incredibly dramatic change, don't stay quiet. Talk to his teacher about how the test was administered, and voice your concerns to a district official if you're worried about dishonest behavior. Additionally, listen carefully to what your child tells you about tests, and investigate if something sounds fishy.
- Encourage honesty. Make it a point to talk about honesty and integrity with your elementary schooler so that he learns for himself what is and isn't ethical on tests. Vocalize situations when you have the opportunity to behave in an honest way so he'll imitate your behavior. For example, if a grocery store clerk accidentally forks over an extra five bucks, tell your child about the mistake, and make sure he sees you give the money back. When you catch him doing something similar, reward his honesty with an affirmation.
- Get artsy. Make arts and crafts a priority at home to counterbalance the focus on math and reading that often comes with standardized high-stakes tests. In addition to boosting creativity now, arts exposure can also benefit your kid in the long term: in their 2005 Portrait of the Visual Arts, the Rand Foundation reported that "early arts exposure, especially arts education, plays a significant and enduring role in later participation behavior, regardless of the number of years of completed schooling." Take time to unwind with your kid by painting and drawing together, or gaze at Monet masterpieces at an art museum the next time you're looking for a weekend outing.
- Lighten up. Ease the pressure that high-stakes testing puts on your tot by taking time to get silly! Once every couple of weeks—and particularly around test time—make it a point to run around in the sprinklers, spray silly string in the yard, or have a family film night underneath a blanket fort in the rec room. The method doesn't matter, as long as it helps you and your kid blow off some steam, to prevent excess stress.
- Make a change. If you sense that high-stakes exams are really taking a toll on your kid, it may be time to think about switching him to a different school district with a testing philosophy that's more similar to yours. If moving isn't an option, consider switching your child to a different teacher, or pursuing private, charter, or home-school.
If your kid's stuck in a school system filled with high-stakes tests, don't be daunted. Though you can't revamp the testing system (at least not overnight), you can fill in the moral and educational gaps that high-stakes testing leaves behind. With the help of the tips above, know that you can teach your kid that cheating's never okay, no matter how high the stakes, and that there's more to learning and life than a test.