The Importance of a Warm and Safe Classroom Testing Environment

…or how a stockpot of gravy saved my kids from test anxiety

Every year testing sneaks up on me. Sitting at a staff meeting, marinating on the last bit of information that was shared with us, I’m always surprised when our admin announces, “It’s time to talk about scheduling the state testing dates.” That’s one way to wake me up at a meeting. 

This year is my sixth year teaching middle school science and I taught elementary grades for eight years prior, so there is really no excuse for forgetting state testing is coming each year. Testing usually lands in March which is also when I start feeling spring edging in and the excitement of longer days. Nothing like testing to burst your bubble. 

While I am not over-enthusiastic about the time and energy testing takes up, I do love data. A primary concern in my dislike of state testing, though, is  that we don’t receive those test scores within a window that allows us to respond to the data. A student was much farther behind in reading than we thought? We’ll let next year’s teachers deal with that. As a result, we have to do more testing, testing that provides us with timely feedback. 

My dislike for testing has led me to buck norms and refuse to buy in to the testing panic machine set up for us by district administrators. Over the years, I have strived to create an even more  warm, loving environment in my classroom. This post does not include my normal cross-curricular hacks, though these strategies can be used in any classroom or content area during testing. 

  1. Reinforce what’s important. In the weeks leading up to testing, I like to remind my students what testing is and what it is not. It is not the SATs. Testing in middle school doesn’t have to be this endless pipeline to high school. It is a snapshot of your performance in answering questions on one day. You are not competing between yourself and a classmate. Your test scores will provide me with information about my performance as a teacher and your growth in meeting state targets for your grade level. 
  2. Emphasize healthy habits…Encourage students to sleep well that week, take some mindful moments in class, and take a walk around the building for the weeks leading up to testing. Modeling healthy habits will help students during testing and beyond. 
  3. …and then make ridiculous breakfast choices. One year I asked my students in my rural Southwest classroom to bring in breakfast treats for the first day of testing. I was thinking muffins, bagels, bananas, and apples. Imagine my surprise when Javier’s dad, taking a quick break from his shift as a cook at our local greasy spoon, walked in with a stock pot of homemade sausage gravy and a huge box of biscuits. The restaurant’s manager had given him permission to donate breakfast-enough for a small army-to my class to kick off the first day of testing. Without a doubt that’s the gold standard of pre-testing comfort food. 

Whatever you can do to make sure your students have some sort of food in their bellies that morning will add a touch of celebration and needed energy for testing. The breakfast choices do not need to be expensive: toast and nut butter, granola bars, or bananas and apples are perfect choices. 

  1. Do what you gotta do. When I taught third grade in the midwest, I had a student who always had anxiety when we went through change. Third grade is usually the first year students have to do high stakes testing (and whose ideas was this?) and my student, Rory, was NOT ready for it. That morning, he was practically hyperventilating with fear, his eyes darting around the room without settling on anything. Taking a walk, mindful breathing, none of that was going to bring Rory down. Then I remembered that his mom had left some calming essential oils in my classroom. To this day I have no idea if this was a good idea or even followed board policy (and I was on the board), but I had him put a few dabs on his fingers and watched as he proceeded to rub the oil all over his arms and behind his ears, then he happily skipped off to take the test. All the while I was thinking, “I can’t believe this is what the government wants us to do to eight-year-olds; stress them out to the point of total dysfunction.” 

Rory took 20 minutes to take the test, which was much better than the 5 minutes I would have predicted for him to spend on the test. I considered it a win. The moral of this story is that before and after the test, your behavior needs to support kids. It’s not about scores, what your district needs, or bragging rights for you as a teacher. It is still your job to be accountable to these developing humans before and after the test. 

  1. Don’t bring your data anxiety to the classroom. Your students deserve a calm, supportive classroom devoid of your anxiety about your performance as a teacher. One year when I was teaching overseas, we gave a test which returned our testing results about two weeks later, while we were still teaching. After the students left for the day, I looked at the test scores and was disheartened. Students that I had spent weeks designing interventions for had low scores, not showing much progress from the previous year. By the time I drove home, I had worked myself up into such a lather that I was sick. I took the next day off, arranged a sub, and spent a feverish night thinking about how I had failed my students. 

The next day, armed with testing printouts, a spreadsheet tool on my computer, highlighters and sticky notes, I spread out the testing results all over my wooden floors and dove in. In the morning’s light, with the sound of the local bread truck’s bell ringing in the background, the scores did not look as awful as I had thought. More importantly, I had some space to think about what those scores didn’t show: How Antonio went from saying, “I hate reading. I’ve never read a book,” to hiding his copy of the Lightning Thief in his math book during lessons on fractions. (My response? Carry on, Antonio). How Mariana improved her reading level, using the SRA, to grade level with her hard work and determination. How I’d created a community of readers in my room, kids who would lay under desks with their legs up on the chairs lounging as they got lost in a good book. The truth is, some of the interventions you do with your students will take years to show up on test scores. Their confidence in showing what they know on a standardized test can take a long time to solidify. In the meantime, you can work to support a community of learners in finding their love for books. 

None of these ideas negate the purpose of testing. I care about being accountable for providing students with a rigorous education and with meeting the needs of kids as individuals. But I can also see the long game: Helping students have healthy beliefs about and experiences with testing now will help them to reach their academic goals as they grow. Our planning and thoughtfulness and care of our students can help them on that path. 

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