First day of STAAR testing, ugh

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dyc staar 05I probably echo the thoughts of many of you. STAAR testing, already?

I have one who thinks he might be taking a test, possibly, in eighth grade reading today. Another who knows she’s taking a fifth grade reading test tomorrow.

I really try hard not to put any emphasis on these tests, but yet, there are some nerves (for the fifth grader, not so much the clueless eighth grader) that surround the test.

Here’s a reprinting of a story I did in 2012 about what I call the STAAR Stomach, that test-induced illness that sometimes happens when kids get too anxious about these tests.

My mom friends and I used to joke that once our kids hit third grade there was this highly contagious disease called the TAKS Tummy.

It has a variety of symptoms. Some kids become sick to their stomachs. Some even throw up. Or suddenly things aren’t normal when they use the bathroom. Other kids get headaches or migraines.

And, of course, the butterflies in the stomach are fluttering and the nerves are fried. No one really wants to go to school with TAKS Tummy.

Now that the TAKS – Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills – standardized tests are no longer being given in Texas, TAKS Tummy should have been eradicated. Nope. It’s back, and it’s mutated into the STAAR Stomach. And next week, when students sit down to take this test, the STAAR Stomach could be worse than the TAKS Tummy.

STAAR – State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness – is new. And teachers and principals will tell you that they’re not really sure what it will look like. They’ve seen sample questions but not the actual test itself. It’s rumored to be harder. It’s also timed, which TAKS wasn’t.

Amy Kinkade, principal at Mathews Elementary School in Austin, which goes up to sixth grade, says what’s different this year is the confidence level. “In the past, teachers felt confident. They had a direction, a goal. They knew what the questions might look like.” Though they’ve been given a lot of information about the test, they haven’t administered it before and their students haven’t taken it before.

Everyone is a little nervous this year, Kinkade says, and she likes to remind her students that it’s normal to be nervous or worried. “It can be very positive and you just have to harness that.”

She and her staff work with students on how to manage their emotions, how to persevere through challenges and how to build social skills – things that they use year-round, not just during test season.

Last year, they even formed groups of seven kids per teacher or administrator to encourage one another. Each group came up with a motto and a poster. Hers was called the Seven Smarties, and students talked about how they were feeling about the test.

Children take their emotion cues from the people around them: their parents, their teachers and their peers, says Dr. Caron Farrell, assistant clinical professor at the University of Texas’ Southwestern Medical Center and a psychiatrist and pediatrician with child and adolescent services of Seton Mind Institute. She’s also a mom of three daughters, ages 13, 10 and 5.

If children are expressing a worry about the STAAR test, find out where it’s coming from, Farrell says. Is his teacher expressing worry? Does he have a friend who is worried, or is it you, the parent, who’s anxious?

For parents, Farrell says, making sure that you have an attitude of calmness about the test is important.

Parents should let kids know that it is something to take seriously, but nothing to worry about. It’s testing the knowledge they already have, not something they have to study for. Parents also can remind children that this is a test to see how well the school is doing, not just how well they are doing.

If a child is catastrophizing the outcome of the test, try to put it into perspective. What happens if she doesn’t pass? Well, then she gets extra help at school. Farrell says some kids think of the worst-case scenario.

Parents should listen to their children’s worries about the test, Kinkade says. Don’t dismiss them. Instead, try to reinforce this message: “You’re going to be ready; you’re going to do your very best.”

You can even put up posters around the house with positive messages or slip a note in the child’s lunchbox or backpack with words of encouragement.

Parents can help by making this weekend and next week as laid-back as possible. That might mean skipping after-school activities.

Do what everyone tells you to do: Make sure your kids get a good night’s sleep and eat a high-protein breakfast in the morning. If kids are not normally breakfast eaters, try something like a smoothie or Carnation Instant Breakfast drink. And if you have a teenager who usually has caffeine in the morning, this isn’t the time to stop, Farrell says.

Also, getting up a few minutes early might help start the day off right by avoiding the morning rush.

The morning I talked with Kinkade, she had students at an assembly come up with ideas on how to manage their nerves during test season. You can share them with your kids.

* If you get stuck, instead of getting frustrated skip the question and go back later.

* Relax and take some deep breaths. Give yourself little breaks and stretch.

* Take questions a few at a time to avoid getting overwhelmed by the number of questions.

* Read the questions aloud to yourself.

* Drink lots of water, chew gum and have protein snacks during the test. It’s all about keeping the brain fed and active.

* Think of taking the test as cracking the code. Every question might have an element of trickery, so try to understand what the test is really asking.

* Do positive self talk: I can do it. I’m smart. I know this. I’ve learned this.

And while STAAR is important to schools, it’s not the only way kids will be graded and it doesn’t measure everything they learn, Kinkade says.

“We’re aware of STAAR, but we’re not driven by STAAR, ” she says. “We’re still carrying on with creative, experiential learning.”

 


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