Students live or die by tests, at least it feels that way to them. Parents dole out praise or punishment based on the results. Teachers measure students against each other and determine mastery of different skills. The school passes or fails students based on test scores. Expand even further, the state bases teacher pay and ranks schools according to the results. No wonder kids feel so much pressure at just the mention of an impending test.
Are tests the best way to assess the capability and understanding of a student? Most of the time probably not, instead we are conditioned to accept tests as the gold standard for determining the success of our kids. It’s only a snapshot, so many factors can influence the picture you see on that day. The test doesn’t care about any of the outside variables impacting the performance of the student. They could be sick, tired (a chronic problem with high school kids), upset, anxious, or depressed. They might have had the worst fight of their lives with their best friend or broken up with a girlfriend/boyfriend. As adults, we can call in sick and take the day to deal with any of those issues. Kids don’t get that luxury. None of that matters to the test. The only thing that counts is the work on the page.
I know I’m leaving out some big reasons for performing badly. They didn’t try hard enough. They were lazy and didn’t study. Kids can make some bad choices, but I would argue so do we. I know I’ve procrastinated about getting my tags renewed and had to pay a fine. I’ve had days where I’m so tired I can barely function because I went to a concert on a work night. Their job is school, and some days they stink at it just like us.
Most of my tutoring sessions consist of test prep, and the tests don’t always capture the true picture of a student. They may come to me the day before the test with a swirl of formulas swimming in their head, but walk out confident and ready for the test. The student knows some of the concepts, but they haven’t really cemented the information into their brain. When they get to the test, they swap formulas or blank on word problems; the grade is not what they hoped it would be. Add to that test anxiety intensifying after each failure, and it’s a recipe for subpar test performances.
I always go over tests with students when they get them back, if they get them back. (That’s a pet peeve of mine. How are the kids supposed to correct what they did wrong if they can’t analyze the test and take it home?) They can be so embarrassed to show me a bad test and focus only on what they did wrong. I want to know what they understood. Did they miss a concept, or was it a simplification error such as losing track of a negative? I ask them what went wrong, what was hard, what was easy; and then we re-work the problems they missed. They are much more responsive than my own kids when I just yell them.
A neurological study about brain growth during learning shows a marked increase in growth when a mistake is made. It is an opportunity to learn even more. They need to know that failures do not always mean more failures. And, it happens to all of us, even adults.
My kids have pointed out the hypocrisy of all this. How I’m really patient with my students and never berate them for a low test grade. With my kids, there is often a punishment for low grades. So, I try really hard to take a deep breath when one of them brings home a big fat failing grade. I try not to have a knee jerk reaction to take away phones or limit their video games. Instead, I look at why they failed. It’s the why that is really important. Their grades do not define who my children are. The CogAT does not define whether my child is gifted or not. The Georgia Milestone does not tell me how good or bad my child is at a subject. They may indicate areas that need work, but they do not define them. Instead, I try to help them learn from their mistakes. Sometimes I still yell, but I’m working on it.