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How parents can help their kids ace tests

Whether your children are in public school or private, few words inspire such a visceral reaction in parents as these two: “standardized testing.” But no matter what tests a school administers, there are things parents and students can do to make the process as stress-free as possible.

The main thing is to maintain good study habits all year round, says Colleen Cannon, principal at St. Josaphat School in Chicago.

“You can’t ramp up for the test,” she says. “At our school, we try to be low-key about testing because it can be so stressful.”

Stress levels increase as the grade level does, with testing helping to determine what high school your child might attend.

“We tell parents there are high schools for everyone, and the test is only one component of who (the children) are as the student. They are not the test. It’s just a way for us to see, over time, how they are doing,” she says.

St. Josaphat now administers the Aspire test online, recently switching from the popular Terra Nova exam. The test, which looks at math, reading, social studies, science and English, is based on the Common Core and is a good way to challenge students and gauge where they are academically.

Even though there is no way to perfectly measure a student’s readiness for college through a standardized test, there are things parents can do to help their students get ready for the tests, says Jimmy Kim, co-founder and education consultant with More than Scores and Tests, an education consulting company that helps combine tutoring and college consulting.

For example, as your child studies for any tests, help them focus on reflecting their own understanding and misunderstandings, Kim says. That means helping them understand not only what the right answer is, but why it is right.

“For example, as they practice solving an English or math problem, focus on why the right answer is the right answer, why they could eliminate other choices, and then focus on what they need to learn so you could make the right answer choices next time,” he said.

Also, standardized tests should be used as a checkpoint in seeing where your students are and where they could further improve, Kim says.

A word of advice: “Be sure not to neglect their academics and their activities for the sake of the standardized tests,” he says. “Don’t treat the standardized tests as measuring sticks of your children’s value as students. Instead, treat them more like maintenance checkups with your car mechanic or health checkups with your doctor.”

Testing should be used proactively to identify students’ strengths and weaknesses, says Janice DiVincenzo of Holy Cross School in Deerfield. Parents and teachers alike can work together to help students see tests as nonthreatening and non-stressful.

“When students know that this is an opportunity to show what they know as well as show what they need, and when they then receive what they need on a consistent basis, test anxiety can be diminished. Approaching all testing as a normal part of life helps students put classroom assessment into perspective,” DiVincenzo says.

Bennett Day School in Chicago focuses on hands-on learning, not testing, but its leaders know testing is a fact of life.

The best way to prepare for testing is not to practice for taking a test, says Kate Cicchelli, co-founder, principal, and chief academic officer at Bennett Day School in Chicago. “The most important thing is to provide children with opportunities to engage their learning and understanding in novel circumstances. Rote practice of a skill does not improve test scores.”

For instance, expose kids to what Cicchelli calls “incidental mathematics” regularly – such as calculating the cost of a can of peas in the grocery store or a tip at a restaurant. She says giving children opportunities to apply what they know in real-world instances not only builds their abilities, but gives them confidence when they encounter something new on a test.

“I think we fall into the trap that if you know how to do a thing one way and you practice over and over again, you’ll excel on a test. But the test demands you think of things in new and different ways and we have to give kids that exposure.”

Some schools, such as British International School of Chicago, are trying to move away from traditional forms of standardized testing.

The school follows the English National Curriculum and their assessment program, says Mel Curtis, principal of the school.

“We don’t believe you have to test children to work out where they are,” Curtis says. “We believe with every opportunity, you assess where they are. So that can be a piece of writing or a mathematics piece.”

The school follows the Assessment for Learning process, which says that every learning and teaching task offers assessment opportunities.

Some of the key features include being clear about learning goals and how they will be assessed, using effective questioning techniques to provide opportunities to asses knowledge, and showing students that all responses are valued and even errors can be learning opportunities. It also stresses giving constructive feedback and encouraging students to reflect on their learning and monitor their own progress.

Teachers should share learning goals and objectives with them in their language, Curtis says, and then support them as they strive to meet those goals. That means talking with children about a piece of work and asking them what they would do differently if they had to do it again. Or ask them what they could do to move the piece to the next level.

“(Standardized) assessments are one test, one day. They don’t help you imbed knowledge,” she says. “You need to make sure the children know how to improve their work. It’s not just learning a test for test-taking sake; you have to make sure they really understand what they’re learning.”

Audrey Perrott, head of school at Near North Montessori School in Chicago, says the best thing teachers and parents can help students learn from testing is resilience and problem solving. For instance, rather than being thrown by a question on a test and give up, teachers at Near North teach students to think about parts of the question they do know and tease out the answer.

Near North Montessori is participating in the Measuring Skills Assessment, which measures non-cognitive skills such as confidence, creativity and resilience.

“Our hope is that these are the tests that ultimately are going to measure the skills that are important for success. Just giving kids knowledge and see if they can give it back is what we can find in Google. It’s really what can you do with that knowledge that’s so important,” Perrott says.

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