Test stress

Aimee Jackson of St. Louis Park remembers exactly when school stopped being fun for her son. 

“It was right around third grade when he started getting testing anxiety,” she said. “He had taken standardized tests earlier, but it seemed like in third grade the teachers started emphasizing test prep and test day directly to the kids.”

That was all it took to make Jackson’s already slightly anxious son dread test day. 

She and her husband had long made a point of not placing too much emphasis on test results. 

“But when the teachers or the school is putting the weight of testing onto the kids, it takes away the parents’ ability to set the tone around testing,” Jackson said. 

And that, she and many other parents believe, ups the anxiety factor and likely impacts everything from individual test results to lifelong attitudes toward school.

Test anxiety is nothing new — kids have been taking tests for centuries and standardized testing has been a part of U.S. public schools since the 1920s. 

But in the last decade — basically since the federal No Child Left Behind Law upped the importance of testing for districts —concern about testing has picked up speed. 

The Common Core State Standards Initiative, meanwhile, came along in 2010 and along with it the prospect of more testing. (Minnesota didn’t adopt the Common Core standards for math — only reading — because the state’s math standards were determined to be rigorous already.)

Among K–12 parents in Minnesota, attitudes don’t seem to range from pro-test to anti-test. Instead, they’re more likely to range from mildly disliking to fully opting out of required testing. 

“It’s absolutely up there on the list of topics that come up when I’m chit-chatting with other parents,” said Julie Buss of St. Paul. “And it’s always ‘There’s too much testing,’ ‘I wish we didn’t have so many tests” or something like that. 

The biggest complaints, Buss said, are about the number of tests.

Optional, required tests

Minnesota students begin taking tests as early as kindergarten, when most districts assess them in reading and math. 

Then in first grade, many districts begin testing all students with benchmark assessments such as the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) or the Fountas and Pinnell (F&P) Benchmark Assessment System. 

Throughout their school careers, most kids will take other assessments such as the STAR reading and math tests and the Optional Local Purpose Assessments, or OLPAs, in reading and math.

But it’s the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments (MCAs) that prompt the biggest concerns and testing backlash from parents and teachers alike. 

Used by Minnesota to meet the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind law, MCA results determine schools’ and districts’ progress toward standards. And since 2014, a state law has required that Minnesota teacher evaluations be based in part on their students’ test scores.

According to the 2015–16 Minnesota Department of Education testing schedule, a typical fourth-grader, for example, might take OPLAs in fall or winter (one test for reading and one test for math), followed by the MCAs in late winter or spring (one test for reading and one test for math). 

Though the OLPAs are optional, the state covers the cost. 

Minnesota Department of Education spokesman Keith Hovis said the OLPAs are considered practice tests for the MCAs because they can help gauge how students are doing in anticipation of the state-mandated, state-funded MCAs later in the year.

While that’s only four tests a year recommended by the state, districts can add more tests at their own cost throughout the year, including not just the tests mentioned above but also others. 

“Sometimes they develop their own in-district assessments to measure how they’re doing to make sure they’re ready for the MCAs,” Hovis said.

Students in fourth, eighth and 12thgrades, Hovis said, might also take the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress), a nationwide testing program, which generates demographic data released in a report titled The Nations Report Card.

This year the Minnesota legislature passed (and the governor signed into law) a bill that limits the number of hours schools can test to 10 hours for elementary schools and 11 hours for middle and high schools. 

“We believe this will cut down on the number of additional tests being added and ensure testing does not take too much time away from classroom instruction,” Hovis said.

Pros and cons

Proponents say standardized tests such as the MCAs are an effective tool for helping document student learning. Test results can reassure parents, teachers and districts that individual kids or groups of kids are making progress over time. 

Andrea Preppernau, assistant director of Research, Evaluation and Assessment for the St. Cloud Area School District, said in a story in the St. Cloud Times: “How do you know what to teach students if you’re not finding out what they know or don’t know?”

Tests have also helped underscore the large achievement gap in Minnesota schools. 

No Child Left Behind Law requires schools to compare test scores of sub-groups of kids by race and ethnicity, income status and special education. And many agree that those results — which have highlighted a disturbingly large achievement gap in otherwise high-achieving Minnesota — have forced districts to look for ways to close that gap.

Critics contend the test results are a better indicator of student socio-economic status than learning or ability. And the frequency of the tests force teachers to “teach to the test” at the expense of more well-rounded instruction. 

In addition, they say, the tests’ emphasis on reading, math and science come at the expense of the arts, social sciences and other cross-discipline subjects. 

Plus, basing teacher evaluations on test results — results perhaps more influenced by factors such as family income than by teaching performance — strikes many as patently unfair to teachers.

And then there’s the stress many kids and their parents feel from testing. 

Opting out is an option

More and more, parents say they want to spare their kids that anxiety. 

Any Minnesota family is allowed to formally opt their children out of testing. The Minnesota branch of United Opt Out National provides resources and a sounding board for those concerned with this aspect of public education. 

Though the opt-out movement is gaining momentum, it’s still relatively small: In 2014, less than 1 percent of students opted out of the MCAs, according to the Minnesota Department of Education. 

As for the other 99 percent of Minnesota students, many families say they’re not so anti-testing that they want to opt their kids out. They’d just like to see standardized tests, and their results, play a smaller role in the big picture of school. 

That’s the camp Aimee Jackson fits into. 

“I don’t think the tests are so bad,” she said. “I just think there are too many, too often, they make school boring and they unnecessarily stress the kids out too much.”

She and her husband keep their focus on minimizing the stress factor when testing time comes around.

De-stressing for testing

What can families do to help ease the testing stress? 

Plenty, teachers say. 

Parents can set the tone for how their kids feel about testing by treating testing day as just one more piece of the bigger school pie — important to take seriously, but not a measure of any individual student’s worth. The Minnesota Department of Education provides the following tips to help parents encourage their children around testing:

1: Make sure students get a good night’s sleep and eat a healthy breakfast before taking a test. 

2: Encourage an ongoing love of reading, math and learning in general.

3: Provide students with a study area. 

4: Encourage students to practice good study habits by setting aside time every day for homework.

Christopher Danielson, a former math teacher and current Normandale Community College professor — author of Common Core Math For Parents, For Dummies and blogger at talkingmathwithkids.com — encourages parents to focus on supporting kids’ learning all year long. 

For kids between ages 4 and 10, that can mean reading with them every day and asking questions about what they learned that day. Danielson said he supports a math version of the “read 20 minutes every day” message. 

This includes asking questions throughout the day such as How many? How much? What shape? and How do you know? 

“One of the most important things is to not overplay the importance of state testing for individual kids,” he said. “Anything parents can do to lessen the pressure is helpful. We really should be thinking of an annual state test as a chance to show what kids know, not as a high-stakes proving ground.”

Eric Braun is a Minneapolis-based writer, editor and father of two boys. Send comments or questions to ebraun@mnparent.com. Learn more about his other published works at heyericbraun.com.