New Year Means Standardized Tests are Near

Before I’ve even mastered writing “2009” instead of “2008” I realize that spring will soon be upon us.  Who doesn’t long for spring once the seed catalogues start arriving?  But, for parents of school children, spring also means standardized tests to measure progress under “No School Left Behind” (NCLB) law.  However you may feel about NCLB and standardized tests, since public schools live and die by these test scores, we can’t ignore test stress.

No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) has defined public education in recent years and remains a controversial method for improving schools by holding them accountable for ensuring that all children reach a specific proficiency level by 2014.  The NCLB is based on the “outcome-based education” model, which focuses on achieving a particular, specific outcome—a set of facts that each child should know and that can be measured.  NCLB requires all public school students to be “proficient” in reading, math, and science by the year 2014.  “Proficient” means performing at grade level.  Each state sets its own proficiency standards.   To find out what the proficiency standards are in your state, go to

Since a public school is judged successful or unsuccessful based on test results, there is incentive to focus on the specific information and skills that will be tested.  Other skills may be short-changed or not taught at all.  This is where parents can pick up the slack.


If your child seems to be spending a great deal of school time preparing for the test, take some time at home or during homework sessions to round out what they are learning.   If thinking skills are being short-changed in favor of memorization, you can supplement by posing questions or starting conversations that activate those skills.  


For example:


“I see you know all the part of a plant cell.  How is the plant cell different from an animal cell?  What features do they share?  Which features are unique to the plant cell?  What is the reason for the difference?”


“It can be kind of boring to memorize stuff, I know.  But, can you think of a reason why it’s important for a scientist to know all the parts of a plant cell, or all the organs in the body?  What jobs can you think of that would require knowing all the parts of a plant cell?”


“Wow, that’s great that you’ve learned the three branches of government.  What are three levels of government?  Does each level of government have three branches?  Why do you think our government was set up to have three branches?   What are some reasons that it’s important to know how our government works?   How could the opinions of guys like John Adams and Thomas Jefferson be relevant today when they lived such a long time ago when things were very different than now?  Why do you think the rules they set up long ago still work today?”


“Did you know that before the American Revolution, there was a Revolution in France?  People in France got tired of being told what to do by a king.  They wanted more of a say in how they were governed.  How is that like our Revolution?  Most countries were governed by a king or a queen before France’s and our revolutions.  The idea of democracy was way out there back then.  Why do you think people changed their ideas about how they wanted to be governed?” 




“You’re sure to come across words you don’t already know when you read.  What do you do when that happens?  Can you figure out what a word means by the other words in the sentence or paragraph?  That’s called ‘context’.  What happens if you break that word down to see if you know what some of the parts mean?”


My son is can’t escape standardized testing just because he’s homeschooled.  The school district in Nashville requires home school students to take the state test in fifth and seventh grades.  The fifth grade year I obsessed over the test–it felt like it involved a judgment of me rather than my son.   I suppose that’s what public school teachers feel too, and I completely understand the impact of test stress on what goes on in the classroom.  I signed up for an on-line test preparation service and set my son to work.  In fact, we didn’t do much else but test prep for about a month.  I figured at the very least, he would get practice in preparing for and taking tests like the SAT.  Despite my constant worry, my son sailed through the tests.  I don’t think, though, that his success was because of the tortuous test preparation.   The biggest contributor to his success was the logic activities we had been doing for two years.


Critical Thinking Books and Software publishes as series called Mind Benders by Anita Harnadek.  The series features logic problems of increasing difficulty.  The problems are fun and seemed like a puzzle game to my son.  Of course, he was too young for any formal logic–no “if X then Y” problems.  But working through the problems helped him develop a methodical way of solving problems that I clearly saw him apply to math, reading, science and social studies.  You get a really big bang for your buck with logic and analytical thinking practice! 


Suggestions for helping your child prepare for standardized tests:


1. Help him or her cope with the stress.  Encourage physical activity and healthy diet as ways of coping.  Put the test in context for your child.  A second grader doesn’t need to feel the same way about a standardized test as a high school senior studying for the SAT.


2. Act as overseer of the body of material your child is trying to master for the test.  Check your state’s standards so you can fill in gaps and put things in context.  By knowing the significance of what they are memorizing, your child can feel less like he is wasting his time than building his body of knowledge.  Encourage learning and thinking skills by asking questions designed to get your child to compare and contrast, prioritize, analyze, and assess.


3. Introduce your child to logic by using Mind Bender problems as early as kindergarten or first grade.  The reasoning skills they absorb benefit every subject they will study and build a solid base for more advanced-level thinking.









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