How Do We Reduce the Stress of Testing?

Creative Commons by Amy McTigue
Let’s face it, testing is stressful. It’s stressful for teachers AND for students.

Think about the stresses that evaluation places on students. They become fearful of failure rather than being free to learn. When this happens, we see students shut down. If their bodies tend to interfere with their output, as is common with conditions like Rett syndrome, the chance for unintended errors increases and elevates stress levels even more, causing the emotion of fear to inhibit cognitive freedom to learn. This, in turn, creates an internal struggle that tends to worsen apraxia and interfere even more greatly with accurate output. It’s a very negative cycle.
At the same time, testing is necessary. Done correctly, it provides helpful information on which we can base solid decisions for planning instruction. It provides feedback to children and their families. It can be a good thing in its rightful place and at appropriate, limited times.
There are a number of challenges to assessing students with severe disabilities that may sound familiar to your student or child:
1.       The lack of verbal speech
2.       The inability to control voluntary movements efficiently, or at all (apraxia)
3.       Performance that varies based on current state of health or sensory processing
4.       Variations in the way others interpret a child’s responses
All these factors make it difficult to use traditional classroom tests. Over the next few weeks, I’d like to talk about how we can address these issues to support success when it comes to assessment. My hope is that this will reduce the stress you feel about assessment.
For now, though, I want to focus on ways to reduce the stress of testing for our students. You might find these strategies help lesson some of your testing stress, too.
1.       Teach, don’t test.  Yes, you need to assess, but for the most part, learning time should be just for that—learning. There is no need to “test” all day long! We don’t do that to typical learners and our kids with disabilities need that same attitude of respect. 

Let kids explore, let them learn from their mistakes. Help kids think of mistakes as learning opportunities. You may have to lead them through this process, but it is an important life skill.  

This is oh-so-true when it comes to learning to communicate. Let natural consequences shape learning. It’s much better to offer a child a bite of less-preferred asparagus (and then let her  use her refusal skills to object!) than it is to tell her, “No, you really meant ice cream.” 

2.       Test the same way you teach. Too often, we test kids using a different response method than they used to practice a skill. What we need to do instead is assess using the same familiar response strategy.
For example, pretend your student is learning to sort objects from smallest to largest. Together you work to line up real objects – toys, cars, fruits, whatever – in size order. You progress to pictures and the child continues to succeed in lining them up from smallest to largest.
The appropriate assessment, then, is to have the student demonstrate size order by lining up a collection of objects or pictures. It is NOT to give a multiple choice question asking which one is the largest! This wasn’t how the child practiced and the skill needed to respond is different from the one he has been rehearsing.
3.       Save testing for “up” times. When a child is off their game, whether due to illness or a sensory issue, save the testing for another day. They may be unable to concentrate on the task you are measuring. To collect data about this skill during such a time isn’t a fair reflection of ability.
This means that when kids are “up,” we need to collect data. There is no promise of a good streak of days leading up to an IEP meeting, so we must have a good bank of data to draw from. This doesn’t mean that we need to be testing continuously on good days though (see #1); it means that during good times we should…
4.       Collect little bits of data often. If you are applying the other principles, you’ll see how this is easily accomplished. You’re going to collect data from a “test” that is similar to the activity used to practice this skill. It isn’t like you have to set aside a special day for testing; in fact, it’s more likely you’ll catch the child on an optimal health and sensory day if you take your cues from the child, rather than the calendar.

So on a good day, when the child feels comfortable inside his own body, you’ll simply keep track of his independent performance on this activity.  From our earlier example of lining up objects from smallest to biggest, he shows you he can line up 4 objects correctly. His data sheet now shows 4/4. How long does this take? A couple minutes? 

In two days, he may repeat this for another 4/4. Next week, there might be 3 opportunities to collect data. When you compile this information, adding up the number of corrects over the number of opportunities, you might get something along the lines of 18/20 or 20/20.   

This data was collected in small bits of time over two weeks. It maximizes the student’s energy and attention levels. It doesn’t feel like a test. He is relaxed and able to perform at his best. You are relaxed too. 

5.       There is no need to label measures of performance as “tests.” For the purpose of your planning and your district, it may be. But we don’t need to pressure students with a loaded word such as “test.” To them, it’s okay if you’re simply writing down numbers about how they did on a task.
These are strategies you can implement today. I’m curious to hear whether your see your student scores improve simply by putting these stress-reducing strategies to work. Please let me know!


Rachel said...

Thanks for a really thoughtful, important post.

Rose-Marie said...

You're welcome, Rachel. Stay tuned, as there will be more about assessment coming up over the next few Wednesdays. I hope you find the information useful!

Rose-Marie said...

"A" asked me to post this on her behalf...

Back in the dark ages of classic Doman programming, the later maxim of "teach, don't test" was practiced quite literally. The idea was to help a child learn the experience of repeated successes in test situations. It was a kind of cuing/cheating but in our case, anyway, the results took root quickly and the cue was then phased out. Something about the emotional engagement and attendant well-being of getting an answer right seemed to set up a sort of neurological matrix for enthusiastic, relaxed focus and discrimination---the nothing-succeeds-like-success neural pathway. This might be especially useful for kids with Rett-like apraxia.

Rose-Marie said...

A, I think there is a lot to this. And I wouldn't call it "cheating," as we let neuro-typical kids rehearse for testing situations. What I like about the scenario you describe is insuring that kids experience success in their rehearsal, so they not only look forward to the experience, but build strong neural pathways in the process. Excellent point you raise!