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How Does High Stakes School Testing Affect Sad, Traumatized, Withdrawn, Vulnerable Students?

One of the hottest topics in our Problem Student Problem Solver workshop staff development sessions has gotten to be participants' upset at the damage they see being caused by overzealous state-wide assessment testing. As you may know, some states have become so concerned about measuring student progress, that many they have highly rigorous testing. In some regions, teacher and administrator employment and/or salary are based on test scores. In at least one state, personnel have been caught forging test results. In another state, schools are actually given report cards, and graded, with some schools failing. In other regions, professional sport team mascots and cheerleaders are hired to urge students to score well.

In one state, part of the progress assessment testing, includes having students write an essay. One teacher wrote the local newspaper to tell of her dismay when one of her students wrote his essay on his return to middle school following a period of dropping out due to serious difficulties he was facing. The essay was judged unsatisfactory when scored for the test on such measures as grammar, punctuation, etc. The teacher now had the difficult situation of having a young, vulnerable student receive a failing score on a highly sensitive topic. Worst still, apparently the student's story would also have been failed even if the essay's focus had been to lament the death of his mother, or to describe the beating of his sister. There is no provision to adjust tests to the special needs of students, or to give consideration to special circumstances. This inflexibility is true across many states that use progress testing.

The teachers and counselors who come to our workshop, often ask if there are approaches that could work better than what they view as "education at all costs," when students are expected and pressured to produce regardless of any family problems, disabilities, crises, or personal horror that a child may be living with. There are much better ways, and some of the best, are described below. But, testing does not leave only challenged kids buckling under the pressure. My own 13 year old, easy B+, honor roll mention, doesn't-even-study-much, normally unflappable student burst into tears recently,terrified that she will flunk the 10th grade tests she will face that are still more than 2 years away!

Here Are Adaptations to Consider:

** What Could Replace "Education at All Costs?"
So often adults have two viewpoints towards educating youngsters in distress. Some adults say that no matter if the child is being beaten, or goes unfed, or whatever the distress, the child must still complete homework on time, take tests, etc. This can heap more misery on the shoulders of a deeply troubled youth. Others take the opposite tact and say they don't want to add to the child's problems, and so they won't expect much from them. Sadly, this means the child may not get the education they still need. Instead of these extremes, find the balance between these viewpoints: never abandon your educational mission, but don't accomplish it all costs.

** Understand How Much Pain Exists
Non-mental health professionals may be shocked at the surprisingly high numbers of children in pain. The literature suggests that perhaps 10% of the children (or a family member) may struggle with substances; 10% may be emotionally disturbed; 20-30% may face sexual abuse or incest; 10-15% may face verbal, physical or emotional abuse. Even though these numbers don't take into account the overlap across these groups, that's a lot of kids facing a lot of pain.

** Stop the Pressure
There are ways to evoke a desire to perform well that doesn't have to be experienced as pressure. So many teachers believe that the pressure that is being exerted in their state is absolutely conterproductive to testing, and they are

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probably right. Instead of pressure, show how education skills will be needed in the adult world, and how critical they are to the kids' futures, rather than relate learning skills to scoring well on assessment tests. Education is meant to prepare kids for the adult world, not for taking tests.

** Train Kids to Be Students
We don't formally train youth to be students. Very few schools have a formal, written-down plan to teach attendance, punctuality, motivation, test-taking, homework management, discussion skills, how to focus, etc. If these nuts-and-bolts skills were systematically taught instead of just being expected, more kids might learn more, and yes, test scores could be enhanced.

** Train Kids to Manage Anxiety and Problems
We also don't teach students how to manage big problems from home, and anxiety about tests and school. Learning problem management and how to overcome anxiety will be skills a child will need for an entire lifetime, and yes, could enhance test scores.

** Stop Micro-Managing Teachers
In many states, teachers are treated like money-grubbing scum. Teachers do the most important jobs on the planet, often for humble pay, and without thanks while also serving as parent, psychologist, nurse and pastor to many lost souls. Instead of making teachers' jobs harder, give them more support and better training. Much of today's teacher training is not geared to face the big social and emotional problems that arrive each day with the kids. We also have schools where classes include a whopping 38 youngsters and the sky can be seen through the holes in the classroom. We expect teachers to teach against all odds, all while consistently criticizing them and reducing their budgets.

** Stop One-Size-Fits-All Testing
Few accomodations are made at all in performance testing. A child who was raped the night before, or slept under a bridge, or witnessed terrible domestic violence, must still perform. No one wants lower standards, but build in some type of breathing room for students with serious or pronounced distress, disabilities,crises, cultural differences, ethnic differences, language differences, etc. In one state, many of the schools that performed poorly on state-wide tests were communities with many minority group members. Little effort seems to have been made to ensure that these tests were fair to children who were different from the dominant culture. So, their school flunked.

** Stop Telling Schools They Flunk
Imagine you are a six-year-old and you hear that your school flunked. Imagine the impact on you, especially if you struggle academically, or have a low opinion of yourself, or you already live with racial bias, or you're a new immigrant feeling adrift in a new world...where even your school flunks. Let's find more grown-up ways of referring to schools that struggle.

If you want to see how the education world looks from outside the box, be sure to check out the hundreds of surprising, wonderful methods and ideas on our web site. You won't find a focus on content or testing, but you will find common sense methods that work to build motivation, stop work refusal, help traumatized youngsters, and improve class participation.

About the Author: Get much more information on this topic at Author Ruth Herman Wells MS is the director of Youth Change, ( Sign up for her free Problem-Kid Problem-Solver magazine at the site and see hundreds more of her innovative methods. Ruth is the author of dozens of books and provides workshops and training.