Standardized Tests—No Child Dubbed a Failure


Email Sandra Nichols

  "It has been determined that some students actually bubble in their answers in artistic patterns on the score sheet rather than reading the questions and making a real attempt at answering."


n September, back-to-school clothes are still new and the annual spring testing is a long way off. However, now is not the time to kick back.

By now, parents have received test results from the State of California relating to their child's individual performance on last spring's round of testing. There are some very disappointed and concerned folks out there, understandably frustrated in these days of No Child Left Behind.

In reality there have always been children unable to keep up with the pace of their peer group and there always will be. A presidential proclamation declaring that no child will be left behind does nothing for low performing students other than to sum up their educational performance by the mark of "X" in the "Far below basic" and "Below basic" boxes. What an incredible indictment of a child's school career. What's a parent to do?

Parents all over are swinging into action. They are organizing parent advocacy groups. They are seeking alternatives and supplements in education. They are asking for advice and assistance.

You have heard about high-stakes tests, the main one being the High School Exit Exam. Now it turns out that in many children's minds, the spring tests which measure school performance and are used to determine which schools are under performing, requiring sanctions, and how some funding is doled out, are considered "low-stakes" tests.

According to a recent article in the "California School", a CSBA publication, many children have a bad attitude about these tests — as some of you have suspected! It has been determined that some students actually bubble in their answers in artistic patterns on the score sheet rather than reading the questions and making a real attempt at answering.

In some situations, students ascertain — at times in error — that there will be no personal consequences for performing poorly on one of these required tests. These test scores do not directly influence a student's grade point average or the grade in any particular class, so some students have apparently developed an Alfred E. Newman -What me worry? - attitude.

Get this! It is reported that students at Sacramento High School actually "deliberately failed the test to make the principal look bad." Yikes!

Due in part to the children's perception of the tests as low-stakes, according to the aforementioned article, we have students choosing answers via the "eeny-meany-miny-mo" method. Imagine how this affects a school's ability to achieve improvement and actually meet NCLB Annual Yearly Progress targets!

Parents are well-advised to turn to different solutions, depending on the individual circumstance of their child.

If your child is a good student who performs poorly on the standardized tests, ask yourself whether it could be a case of lack of motivation relating to the test. You must also consider that your child's skill level may not be reaching the actual standard. Your child's teacher may be able to help you recognize the different possible causes of poor test performance, which include poor test-taking skills. Discussing this with your child may also reveal the actual problem.

Researchers have been studying how to motivate students to perform their best on tests perceived as "low stakes." One researcher, a Harold F. O'Neil of USC, investigated the effectiveness of paying students up to $10 per correct answer. Are you dying to know if that helps? We'll get to that.

I am reminded of an old friend of mine who told her boys that she would buy them a waterbed if they were to hit a home run in Little League. She expressed to me that she was trying to motivate her kids to do their best. Since she asked for my advice, I said that the applause and kudos a child's friends would give and the wonderful feeling of running around those bases was motivating enough.

Rewards or bribes — money or a fancy prize - are called external motivators. They have been seen to be effective when training your pet and do sometimes work on a child. However, as researcher O'Neil found out, money was not at all effective in motivating the students to perform well on the tests. Experts advocate intrinsic motivators such as the love of learning. This is not a new finding. Educators have long known that pride in your own work and that the self-esteem of a can-do attitude is one of the best motivators there is.

I hope in a sea of test scores, parents consider their own child's special talents, which may not be reflected on any of the STAR tests. These talents can lead to the kind of successful lives we so desire for our children. No child should be dubbed a failure from a single snapshot in the No Child Left Behind photo gallery!

Sandra Nichols is President of the Pajaro Valley Unified School District Governing Board serving 19,000 students in Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties. She is a Speech and Language Specialist with Santa Cruz City Schools, and was recently appointed by the Board of Supervisors to the Santa Cruz County Children and Youth Commission. The opinions expressed are those of Sandra Nichols and do not necessarily represent those of any school district, print publication or web site.

© Sandra Nichols 2003