Just Mark ‘C’ and Two Other Things I’ll Tell My Kids About Standardized Testing

I can only recall one piece of advice for taking standardized tests when I was a kid.

The pointer didn’t come from my school’s principal or from my teacher-parents.

The advice came from my older brother, Tim, in an unsolicited fashion.  He told me, “Just mark ‘C’ if you don’t know the answer and move on.”

I remember being stumped a few times and doing as my older brother said – filling in the middle circle.  That’s all the advice I needed to put me at ease while taking the Iowa Test of Basic Skills so long ago.

Today, though, the local news led with a story offering different recommendations – in a segment entitled, “Help Your Child Manage the Stress and Anxiety of FSA Tests.”

The news offered six ways of combating test-related stress in kids:

  1. Take breaks when necessary.
  2. Practice deep breathing exercises.
  3. Turn off electronics 30 minutes before bed.
  4. Get 8 to 10 hours of sleep.
  5. Eat a good breakfast.
  6. Arrive at school early on test days.

I paused, thinking that my kids hadn’t seemed stressed at all.  In fact, I had lost track of the fact that the tests would be administered this week.

When I asked my kids about the exams, I heard two things.

First, Lynden and Vivi were reminded to eat a protein for dinner and a good breakfast.  Next, if they concentrated on their testing, both were promised a reward afterward.  One teacher planned to give out “brain candy” (peppermints) and another turned to Goldfish crackers as the agreed upon spiff for the class.

The incentives provided by my kids’ teachers seem to be fairly minimal – paling in comparison to the extravagant rewards a quick Google search reveals.  One such incentive was detailed in a piece from the Washington Post in March.  In that article, a New York charter school was said to have held a “Slam the Exam” pep rally at Radio City Music Hall to fire kids up for test-taking.

Yes, that Radio City Music Hall.

So, it’s confirmed – whether I’m listening to the news, reading a national publication or listening to my children the day before standardized testing begins, I’ve learned two lessons:

  • That standardized testing is one of the most important aspects of childhood education
  • My kids are being made keenly aware of that fact as test time approaches

I have no issue with schools making efforts to drum up energy among their pupils and teachers.  I don’t have any issues with lists that call on parents to, rightfully, have their kids prepared for the school day.  I have an issue, though, with picking and choosing when to do either – or waiting for test time to do both.

Kids – kindergartners to high school students – are perfectly calibrated B.S. detectors.  They sniff out circumstantial guidance – inconsistent instruction that comes one day and goes the next.

Anything that doesn’t last is filed in my kids’ subconscious “here we go again” compartment – giving rise to the two problems I see related to exaggerated efforts associated with standardized testing:

  1. The activities on these lists or the incentives offered attempt to fool the kids they are trying to influence.  Sure, my children enjoy getting a peppermint or an extra helping of those yummy, salty, cheddar-y fish, but that should not be the motivation to concentrate harder or to score better.  So, let’s give our kids a little more credit and stop trying to package something as mundane as standardized testing into a party.
  1. Inconsistency does not work.  My children are little, booger-picking creatures of routine and stability.  So, while getting 10 hours of sleep might be advisable, deciding to suddenly enforce an early bedtime due to testing may backfire.  In my house, changing up something as simple as getting my geniuses’ in the minivan ten minutes early will, without doubt, cause more consternation than our normal, daily cattle drive into school.

Despite my gripes, though, I must deal with certain facts:

  • Yes, standardized tests are important and aren’t going anywhere.
  • Yes, I need to chat with my kids about why these test are required. 
  • But, no, I will not suddenly change-up my parenting style to exaggerate their significance.

Instead, like most days, I’ll try my best to keep it simple.  I’ll say the two things that will provide benefits that outlast any breathing exercise, salty snack or fancy pep rally.

I’ll encourage my kids to, “Do your absolute best,” and that, “No matter the outcome, I’ll love you as much after as I did before.”

These sentiments don’t go away next week when the memory of this year’s testing fades.  Those words don’t thrust the weight of someone else’s expectations onto their narrow shoulders.

If those two statements aren’t enough and my children still worry about not knowing every answer, I’ll give the same advice my brother gave me.

There is nothing wrong with, occasionally, just marking ‘C’.

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