There’s no easy way to say it: testing season is stressful. From the logistics of coordinating schedules and materials to the task of preparing and supporting students, the flurry of state and district tests is demanding on administrators, teachers, school staff, and students.
Rather than throwing your hands up and resigning to this fate, school leaders can take tangible steps both to ameliorate the stress of testing and to use this time as an opportunity to bolster school culture and community. Sounds great, but how can you do that?!
#1: Explain Why The Tests Are Important
Any teacher will tell you the most common question students ask during testing season is this: Why do we have to take these tests?
The question is valid! Students are required to sit for long periods of time, taking challenging tests without the ability to ask questions, and often not receiving their results for months. Questioning this experience is fair and demonstrates a degree of critical thinking.
The challenge as teachers, however, is understanding how to answer the question. Educators and administrators each have their own opinions and perspectives on state-testing, and when students receive a wide range of disparate answers, it can be very disorienting.
Proactively contextualizing why schools are required to take these tests–in ways that are age-appropriate–can help build an understanding that takes away the confusion during an already stressful time. To reduce student stress, it is equally important to communicate that these tests are not a definitive sign of their intelligence; they are simply one measure of learning among an array of other valuable measures.
Don’t put unnecessary pressure or burden on your students. Instead, framing tests as opportunities for students to demonstrate all that they’ve learned helps to replace stress with motivation. You can also reward your students for their effort with some sort of celebration after the tests. Bonus points if your students get to vote on what kind of celebration they want!
#2: Encourage Questions
Testing season can be confusing and overwhelming for everyone. Teachers must adhere to strict protocols as proctors and students have to follow specific rules during and after testing. As school leaders, it’s critical to encourage teachers and students to ask any and all questions–there are no “bad” questions!
For teachers, you can hold optional Q&A sessions during lunch and planning periods, giving educators accessible opportunities to ask questions about testing. You can also create an anonymous question box in the staff lounge. If teachers feel nervous or insecure asking a question, this gives the option of asking anonymously. School leaders can post questions and their respective answers on a bulletin board in the staff room or via email. Chances are, if one teacher has a question, other teachers have a similar question!
For students, encourage teachers to create space in their classroom for students to ask questions about testing. This could include using Morning Meetings or Warm-Up times as Q&As, creating an anonymous question box, or asking students basic questions (i.e. “Does anyone need to know which test you are taking first?” or “Does anyone need to know which classroom to report to?”) to normalize not knowing the answers to testing schedules and procedures.
When I first proctored tests as a classroom teacher, I had so many questions that I felt too embarrassed to ask. Without answers to these questions, I felt nervous and insecure while proctoring. Had there been a clear culture of asking questions, I would have felt calmer and more confident, which would have better supported my students’ success.
Let “there are no bad questions” be your testing season catchphrase. When teachers and students are told this repeatedly, they’re more likely to be vulnerable and ask their pressing questions.
#3 Information as the Antidote to Stress
Don’t wait until the week before testing begins to communicate important instructions and details! As soon as information becomes available–testing dates, schedules, procedures, etc–share that information.
It’s also important to share necessary information with everyone impacted by testing season: teachers, support staff, office staff, students, and families. When everyone has all of the information they need, they enter testing season feeling informed, confident, and prepared, rather than stressed, confused, and ill-equipped.
Below are some examples of what’s important for each group to know.
- Proctoring rules and procedures
- Testing schedules and dates
- How to get support during testing
- Classroom set-up
- Organizing post-test materials
- Testing schedules and dates for students in their caseload
- Day of testing roles
- Testing schedules and dates
- Format of tests
- Content of tests (i.e. practice tests)
- Test-taking tips and strategies
- What is/is not allowed during testing
- Destressing and mindfulness techniques
- Dates of testing
- Importance of sleep, breakfast, and arriving on time
Share important information through multiple mediums. For teachers, you can communicate testing updates during staff meetings with follow-ups via email and printed hands-out in mail boxes. For students, you can post testing schedules in the classroom and provide individual handouts. For families, you can send home newsletters and make robo-calls with important testing information.
#4 Create a System of Support
Testing season requires a great deal of coordination and cooperation. This is an excellent opportunity to create systems of support that can exist throughout the school year.
Anticipate your teachers’ needs–last-minute test instruction questions, missing test tickets, bathroom breaks, maintaining a quiet testing environment, etc.–and build a system of support around those needs. This means teachers know exactly who to contact whenever a particular issue comes up and the corresponding staff members are prepared to offer support.
Then, consider how to maintain this support system, creating a school culture of collaboration and teamwork year-round.
Create a flowchart so teachers can easily refer to who they can contact for specific needs and questions. Make sure all staff have a copy of the flowchart!
#5 Celebrate Everyone’s Success
When testing is complete, make intentional time and space to celebrate everyone’s success.
For teachers, you can look back at the roles each teacher and staff member played and give individualized and collective shout-outs for their hard-work. Additionally, throughout testing, teachers and staff often provide support, fill in gaps, and play roles that weren’t explicitly delegated. At the first staff meeting following testing, open up space for staff members to share stories of their colleagues stepping up to offer help and support. All of this recognition offers teachers and staff validation for their effort and energy.
For students, create space to reflect and decompress. Through activities like free-writes, pair-shares, and whole-class discussions, allow students to reflect on what went well and what was challenging with their tests. Then, with community-building activities, students can reconnect with their classmates, have fun, and experience some reprieve.
Teachers should also be encouraged to give their students specific positive feedback. Rather than saying, “You all did a great job testing,” specific feedback such as “I could tell everyone was really taking their time during the test and not rushing through it. Thanks so much for your hard work!” helps students understand what they specifically did that contributed to success.
Lastly, celebrating success also includes parents/care-takers. If you had students who stood out as especially diligent or helpful during testing, communicating that to families is a great way to build stronger partnerships with the community.
Try to avoid using test scores and performance as a barrier for students to participate in post-test celebrations. This can lead to students experiencing embarrassment and shame, which are often unmotivating and demoralizing emotions. Instead, allowing all students to celebrate creates a culture of inclusivity and understanding.