Succeeding at Standardized Tests
Parents: Do Your Homework
Standardized testing -- two simple words that often strike fear for children, teachers, and parents alike. Many states use proficiency testing as a way to assess children and evaluate teachers. In some states, a low score on a proficiency exam is grounds for holding your child back. Whatever the policies are in your state, your job is to prepare your young learner for the testing challenge.
Know as much about the test as possible. Most tests are organized around curriculum areas. In the lower grades, these areas are math, language arts, and reading; in the upper grades, they are science, math, language arts, reading, and, occasionally, social studies, or American and/or state history. To find out the content of the tests, contact your child's teacher, your district office, or your state department of education.
Ask your school for resources. Find out if "practice tests" or other exercises are available either through your school or your state department of education. There are many books available that can help, but make sure that they cover what your child will be tested on. The best books are also "hands-on." They contain actual practice tests that simulate the test itself (even going so far as filling in circles or boxes with #2 lead pencils!).
Know what the test means. Find out how the test is scored and what will happen if your child does not receive an appropriate score in one or more areas. Will your child qualify for special tutoring? Will your child be retained? If your child does particularly well, will she be provided with gifted services?
Find out if your child qualifies for special test-taking accommodations. If your child has been identified for special services or has a learning disability, he may be exempt from the test or may need to take it under special conditions. Children who are identified with ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder), for instance, are often allowed to take the test in a special room, away from distractions. Your child's teacher, your school psychologist, or special services coordinator is your best resource.
Incorporate "test taking" behavior into homework activities. Most standardized tests are timed. They also encourage children to skip items they don't know and come back to them later. When you oversee your child's homework, encourage him to do the same thing--to skip items he doesn't know and come back to them. When appropriate, time certain activities (math worksheets, for example). Standardized tests require students to follow directions. Encourage your child to read the directions on the homework and repeat them to you to make sure he or she understands them.
Practice Skills at Home
There are a number of skills that you can easily incorporate into your home routine.
When reading a book or watching a television show or a movie, ask your child to repeat the plot, the story's characters (including the main character), and the setting. Ask him to retell what happens in the beginning, middle, and end. After you read a book together, ask him questions about what happened.
Work on increasing your child's vocabulary by using and defining more difficult words in everyday speech. Use a dictionary to check meaning. Practice using antonyms and synonyms. Have your child become proficient at alphabetical order by organizing materials that way--books, kitchen supplies, videos, etc.
The writing portion of standardized tests usually asks children to respond to a writing "prompt." This prompt is meant to structure their ideas. (For suggestions about incorporating writing prompts into family writing activities, see this issue's "Live and Learn" section.) You may also want to review basic punctuation and capitalization.
Rather than concentrating solely on computation, standardized math tests usually involve spatial skills, patterns, and sequencing. Encourage your child to learn to count by twos, threes, and fives. Create graphs based on family activities and practice reading graphs together. Practice time and money concepts.
Put the Test in Context
Remind your young learner that these kinds of tests are part of the educational routine. You took them when you were in school and your child, no doubt, will face them a number of times throughout his or her school--and post-school career. Filling in those little boxes or circles with #2 lead pencils is something they'll have to do for years to come!
Make sure your child is ready. Your child needs to be well-rested and well-fed when test time arrives. She also needs to be mentally prepared. Be sensitive to your child's anxiety. Talking about the test may cause her stress which will negatively affect her results. Instead, think of ways to diffuse the anxiety. Take a brisk walk, plan a game of tag football, draw her a long, hot bath. And, because standardized testing can sometimes go on for as long as a week, build in physical activity and downtime throughout the test-taking period.
Between You and the Teacher
It's almost second semester and everything that seemed new and exciting about school--including homework--may have turned into a kind of drudgery. Here are some tips to tame the homework monster.
- Establish a homework routine that matches your child's learning style. Some are able to come right home and start on homework. Others need time to relax right after school and are better after a snack or dinner. Still others need to do homework in small amounts, with lots of time in between for physical activity. Learn your child's learning rhythm and develop a homework routine that reflects that rhythm.
- Know what the teacher expects. Be sure you know how much there is, when it's due, how it's counted on a final grade. Check to see if homework should be handwritten (in printing or in cursive) or typewritten on a computer. Develop a way to communicate with your child's teacher if homework instructions are unclear. (Some schools have a homework hotline that clarifies assignments.)
- Set up an inviting work space for homework. Whether the space is a desk in the child's room or a clear space at the kitchen table, make sure that it is as free of distractions as possible. Make sure your child has good lighting and the proper tools to work with (including lots of pencils and erasers!).
- Be accessible and helpful. Stress to your child that you are available for assistance, but that you will not do the work for him. Be clear about those boundaries. Suggest how you can help--by working through a sample problem, clarifying instructions, checking over homework to make sure it has been completed thoroughly, or drilling your child on math or spelling.
- Do your own homework! If you have a desk task to do (paying bills, writing letters, etc.), save that task for your child's homework time. Sit beside him and complete your homework as he completes his.
- Watch for consistent problems. If your child is consistently not completing homework or having the same problem with a skill over and over, communicate with her teacher about it. Occasionally, teachers do give too much homework without realizing it. Children who struggle over and over again with the same skill may need to be introduced to new strategies to learn that skill. They may also be displaying signs of a learning disability.
- Read, read, read! Reading aloud to and with your child is the most important homework habit you can develop. It increases cognitive abilities, as well as reading skills. Set aside time to read every day--and be creative about what you read. Books are obvious choices, but don't forget to read magazines, newspapers, and poems, too.
Write, Live, and Learn!
You may have heard the term "writing prompt" in conjunction with testing. A writing prompt is simply a suggestion for an idea, a form, or a story to structure a writing activity. It can be lots of fun to develop writing prompts into home writing activities--and you'll be helping children develop skills that they can use in testing situations. Consider these possibilities:
- Write a letter to the editor of your local paper about an issue of concern to your community.
- Write a letter of complaint about a toy or game that didn't live up to your expectations.
- Write an email message requesting information about a certain product.
- Write a movie review and send it to your local newspaper or entertainment weekly.
- Think about a time that you were really scared, really sad, or really happy. As a parent, write a paragraph about that time. Ask your child to do the same. Then compare and contrast the events and the emotions surrounding them.
Remember that writing is not only an important academic skill, it's a great way to celebrate family life!
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