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Testing Strategies for the Pandemic

APRIL 19, 2021

High-stakes testing season is stressful for students and teachers in any year. But this year, after more than 12 months of pandemic disruptions, is likely to be even more nerve-wracking. Helping students reduce anxiety and brush up on foundational thinking skills can help.

Should We Even Be Testing During the Pandemic?

First things first: should we even be subjecting students to testing after the disruptions of the past year? Many teachers and educational leaders have questioned the wisdom and the value of spending time on high-stakes testing this year. A majority of students have lost valuable learning time due to coronavirus shutdowns or spent much of the past year in a remote or hybrid learning environment. Testing protocols may also be different this year. Will this year’s tests be valid and comparable to previous years? Will they tell us anything meaningful about student learning during the pandemic? Can we afford to take the time for testing, or would students benefit more from additional classroom learning?

The US Department of Education (DOE) has acknowledged these misgivings and given states more flexibility for testing this year. In a February 22, 2021 Guidance Document, the DOE reiterated the importance of gathering data this year to assess the impact of the pandemic and address educational inequities that have been magnified during school closures and distance or hybrid learning. At the same time, they have granted states more flexibility for this testing season. Specifically:

  • Accountability waivers, meaning states can temporarily halt accountability systems such as participation rate requirements and identification of schools or districts for comprehensive or targeted support and improvement programs. States are also urged to reduce the stakes of assessments for students by excluding their use for final grades or grade retention decisions. Instead, the focus of data collection this year will simply be for informational and planning purposes.
  • Flexibility in test administration protocols for districts where it is not safe to bring students together for in-person testing, including remote administration, shortened assessments and extension of the testing window into the summer or fall.

These changes will go a long way towards reducing the stakes—and perhaps some of the anxiety—of this year’s K-12 testing season. Still, it appears that assessments will go forward in some form for nearly all school districts. How do we prepare our students for testing in this highly unusual academic year?

Preparing Students for a Pandemic Testing Season

As in any year, the most important thing we can do for our students this year is to help them reduce any anxiety around testing. There are several steps teachers and school leaders can take to help families and students at testing time.

  • Provide explicit information about testing as soon as it is available. If testing will take place in a different venue or be administered remotely, make sure that families and students have detailed, plain-language instructions for the testing protocol. If possible, provide practice time for students if they need to get used to new technology.
  • Keep language around testing low-key and positive. Remind students that they need to do their best, but the tests will not have negative consequences for their grades or grade promotion. Encourage a positive attitude and focus on confidence-building for students.
  • Remind families that students should be well-rested and eat well prior to the tests. Taking time for enjoyable activities before and during testing week is important, too.

While practice tests can help prepare students for high-stakes testing, spending a lot of time on practice tests immediately prior to testing week is most likely anxiety-inducing and counterproductive. Pre-test cramming of content area facts is not likely to help much, either. While a light refresher of key concepts from earlier in the year can be helpful, trying to do too much immediately prior to testing is likely to backfire.

There is one thing teachers can do to help students face testing with confidence, though: remind them to focus on the thinking. A key element of testing success is being able to parse a question to 1) understand the kind of thinking the question is asking the student to do, and 2) quickly activate the right cognitive processes and organize thinking to respond appropriately.

This is where students already proficient with Thinking Maps have a leg up when it comes to testing time. Every assessment prompt—whether it is a math problem, a response-to-text writing prompt, or a multiple-choice science question—can be mapped to one or more specific cognitive processes, such as compare-and-contrast, classifying, sequencing, or cause-and-effect. Consider these assessment tasks:

  • From the NC 8th Grade Science Test: From the provided text, identify the types of energy production and their effects.
  • From the TX STARR Assessment for 5th Grade Reading: After reading a piece of fiction, pick the best summary.
  • From the NC 7th Grade Math Test: Identify equivalent algebraic expressions.

Students who use Thinking Maps consistently develop the habits of mind that help them understand how to tackle these and other assessment tasks. They know the academic language that they need to watch for and how to activate the right cognitive processes to respond to the prompt. They also know how to analyze and pull information out of provided text and use textual evidence to make inferences.

When these cognitive skills are automatic, it reduces the cognitive load of testing. Instead of getting stuck wondering what they are supposed to do or how to approach a question, they can get down to the work of recalling and applying prior knowledge and deciding how to answer. When students have a mental Map for thinking, it reduces the stress of testing and lets them display their true abilities.

Thinking Maps Learning Community (TMLC) subscribers can find more information on Thinking Maps and testing strategies in this month’s Navigator: Testing During a Pandemic. Not a TMLC subscriber? Contact your Thinking Maps representative to get started.

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