A Must-Read Guide: Talking to Kids About Standardized Tests

Parent and National Teacher of the Year Sarah Brown Wessling offers helpful advice on what to tell kids before and after the big test.
Kids need support and reassurance when it comes to standardized tests. (Photo: Denver Post via Getty Images)
Apr 26, 2013
Sarah Brown Wessling is an English teacher in Iowa. She was the 2010 National Teacher of the Year.

Navigating the school system can be difficult, but don't fret: Sarah Brown Wessling is here to help. Each month Sarah will offer insight into the classroom and share tips on how to help your child flourish in school.

I still remember the night before the first big standardized test I took. It was third grade and my teacher was Mrs. Cole. She told us there was this important test we were going to take tomorrow, that we wouldn’t actually know what was on it, but that we should all just try our best.

Trying to go to sleep that night wasn’t easy. I remember crawling out of my bed at least five times to go and find my mom’s reassuring glance that eventually turned to a little exasperation: “Honey, it’s just a test. It’s not going to define who you are or determine what kind of a student you’ll be. Now, please, just go to bed and get a good night’s sleep.”

Her words were perfect for my third-grade self and my eighth-grade self and my 11th-grade self. Given that the landscape of public education has changed since I was a young girl nearly 30 years ago, talking about standardized tests has become one of “those talks” both parents and teachers must have with our children.

Drawing on some of mom’s wisdom that still rings true, here are some thoughts for talking with your kids.

Before the exam

Don’t create extra anxiety. In the days and weeks leading up to the exam, it’s important not to create more anxiety than necessary for students. A lot of kids will be experiencing this kind of high-stakes testing for the first time and the quickest way to get them to freeze up is to create unneeded fear. Keep them in their healthy routines: consistent reading and math, reasonable bed times, and time to expend all that physical energy. Ask them what they know about the exam, what they’re confident about, and if they have any worries or concerns.

Do encourage them. Reassure them that you have confidence in them and you want to see their personal best! Try to avoid comparing them to the anonymous “others” that comprise percentile rankings and score points. Instead, help them think about showing what they’ve learned. Remind them that they may get tired or not know some answers, but that doesn’t mean they should give up. I told my son Evan recently: “You aren’t supposed to know every answer. Part of what teachers need to learn is what you don’t know, so they understand how to teach even better. But try your best. Always try your best.”

Put the exam in context. Depending on your child and the exam he or she is taking, be sure to put it in context. Some exams, like the SAT or ACT, are incredibly important but can usually be taken subsequent times if necessary. Conversely, events like AP Exams are just that: events. Like an athlete or a musician, these are performances that culminate a year or more worth of practice and training. Of course we want our students to be able to bring their best on that day, but seldom will that single performance change the course of their academic future.  

Right after the exam

Turn it into a learning experience. Of course on these exam days parents are anxious to ask their children “how it went.” One of my children will always reply: “Fine. What’s for dinner?” While another will give me play-by-play, remembering questions and her responses. Either way, I follow their lead and try to ask each of them to tell me what they learned from the experience. Sometimes I’ll hear something like: “I went too fast. I should have slowed down.” Or maybe something a little more surprising: “I never knew that cars caused so much pollution.” Either way, turning this event into a learning experience helps our young people to understand that learning is an ongoing process that always offers opportunity for insight.

When the results come in

Take the “three bears” approach. I often think about baby bear in these situations: not too much, not too little, but finding that just right reaction. Too much enthusiasm (either positive or negative) and the test becomes the epitome of all school experience. Too little reaction and it becomes negligible.

So, when finding that sweet spot of reaction, just remember that when we praise or question the behaviors more than the score, we’re fostering life-long learning habits. This could sound something like:

  • I’m so proud of the way you worked so hard all year to get ready for this. Those times you had to struggle really paid off.
  • This success really tells me that you stayed focused for the entire exam and I know that’s hard to do.
  • Are you happy with your performance? What would you have done differently to get ready it?

But perhaps the most important message we give our kids when talking to them about standardized tests is that while exams are important, they are but a snapshot of a student’s academic story. At no point is a child the equivalent of her score on a standardized test. Exams can reveal, they can guide, they can create urgency and they can validate. Yet, we all know and must remember to say that a child should never be reduced to a test score and should always be filled with the belief and confidence that he asserts his own amazing potential.

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