Today is day two of of the three-day New York State English Language Arts Exam and in my ten-plus years of proctoring and scoring these exams, it never ceases to amaze me when, just a few minutes into the tests, students’ eyes start to glaze over and their bladders and throats go into overdrive, causing a mass exodus to either the bathroom or the water fountain. What are such behaviors really about? Why am I constantly witnessing students who just don’t have the wherewithal or fortitude to take these annual standardized assessments? By the time they get to me in middle school, they’ve sat for their State ELA exam for at least four years so it’s not like the test is new to them. What’s going on? What’s the problem?
Before you begin with the whole “standardized tests are biased and unnecessary” argument, just pause. That’s not what this post is about and unless there is a radical (and I mean RADICAL) shift in the way this capitalist country educates our children, standardized tests aren’t going anywhere. Are we clear? Okay, good.
With that being said, I think the main reason that many students experience test “anxiety” (and I use the term loosely because I don’t believe that’s the proper term for what I’ve seen students traditionally display) is their lack of preparation and, thus, lack of readiness for the State exams. I tell my students all the time that if I wanted to run in a marathon, I couldn’t just wake up on the morning of the race, go to the start line, and start running. Not only are the chances high that I would not finish the race, but also that I would more than likely badly injure myself in the process.
What I witness every year during the third through eighth grade New York State ELA and Math exams are students who consistently DID NOT come to school; DID NOT do their homework; DID NOT participate in academic conversation during their group work activities; DID NOT complete their projects; DID NOT write their essays and reports; DID NOT take notes in class; DID NOT ask thoughtful questions in class; DID NOT drop everything and read for fifteen-twenty minutes every evening at home; DID NOT take their educations seriously — yet are now running a three-day academic marathon without having done any of the training required to complete the examination race successfully.
Their “anxiety” stems from the fact that they haven’t worked on developing the mental stamina required to read passages of considerable length about topics that don’t feature LeBron James or Beyonce as the central idea. Their anxiety is a harsh in-their-face reality check that says, “oh shoot — I haven’t done any work all year! I don’t understand what the heck this passage is saying or what these questions are asking me!” Certainly this is sad to witness. But, more than saddening me, it frustrates me because what these students are experiencing is easily avoidable if they would just do their work! I know that all of their teachers have told them to do their work! I believe that many parents do the same! However, something just isn’t clicking because the mental check-out game that I’ve seen is serious! I mean less than twenty minutes into the exam and students look like they are ready to be done with it all.
At this point, it’s too late to train much for this year’s ELA exams — they end tomorrow. But, students and parents, in preparation for next year’s round of exams let’s train hard and attain the skills and stamina needed to take the test, instead of having the test take you.