Monday, February 28, 2011

An expert breaks down ISTEP+ and "Test Anxiety"
This is a must read for parents.

Jerrell Cassady
We all experience anxiety – and anxiety does play a positive role in our lives. For more than 100 years, psychologists have recognized that some level of arousal or anxiety is needed to spark motivation to perform at our best. 

Feeling nervous before a big meeting, presentation or athletic contest helps us to energize and focus our attention on the task. However, too much anxiety has a negative influence, drawing our attention away from performing well and focusing on the anxiety itself. Such is the case with academic anxieties.

Academic anxiety is a new concept, proposed in the past year as a way to help us consider the anxiety that learners experience in academic settings. 

Common examples are math anxiety, science anxiety, computer anxiety and, of course, test anxiety. One way Test anxiety affects performance by pulling our attention away from the test and turning it toward the worry, tension or fear imposed by the test. Sometimes we avoid the test – including studying for it – in an attempt to alleviate the anxiety we feel. In both situations, the end result is obvious: we don’t do as well as we could if we weren’t distracted.

So . . . ISTEP+. Feel anxious yet? The term alone raises heart rates of children, teachers and parents around Indiana. When I was in high school in the 1980s, ISTEP was just being introduced and the level of tension about it was much like a standard classroom test. That is, some did not worry about it and just did their thing; and some paid it no attention, making patterns out of their bubble sheets, marking C for all the answers or sleeping; and some kids were anxious and uneasy about the mere presence of a test. There are always a few in a room who fit in the latter group. Our research at Ball State University shows that they suffer even when the test will not be scored and used in grades. The mere existence of a test sparks the anxiety.

Today, we have a whole different situation. ISTEP+ is now a “high-stakes” test in every sense of the term. Student scores can affect school credentials (even school closure and may eventually affect teacher pay and employment. That’s a lot of pressure tied to a test. My work, however, focuses on how to help learners cope with test anxiety.

Tips to make sure our kids do their best on ISTEP+:
  • Help your child see that ISTEP+ (or any test) should be taken seriously, but it is not life and death. Encourage him to get “up” for the test, but not see it as something that will ruin his life if he doesn’t do great.
  • If your child expresses concern over the test, build her confidence by reminding her of how well she has done on other things. If she did well on ISTEP+ last year, remind her of that. If she has improved in an area of academics, point that out.
  • Help your child prepare for the test – not in the ways you normally think. I don’t recommend a “cram session” before your third grader runs out the door for ISTEP+. But I do recommend that he get a good night’s rest, have a healthy breakfast and doesn’t carry any “baggage” to school with him before the test.
  • Reward your child’s positive attitude or performance. I don’t recommend raising anxiety unnecessarily with discussions about the big-picture effects of ISTEP+ scores, but it is useful to let her know that you value when she does her best. The reward, like all things, depends on the child. Recognize her effort, improvement over last year, meeting a certain standard or strength in a particular area of the assessment. You won’t know outcomes right away so, particularly with younger children, reward their attitudes and positive behavior during the testing week itself.

by Jerrell Cassady

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Monday, February 21, 2011

Social Media: Should teachers be able to express their voices as well?

You may have read about the Pennsylvania teacher who got in trouble for blogging about her students. Natalie Munroe didn’t identify the school or any of the personalities about whom she wrote, but her school has suspended her.

Some observers, including many teachers, are crying “foul!” They say Munroe’s First Amendment rights have been violated by the suspension.

I haven’t read her blog, so I have mixed feelings about that specific situation. But with blogging becoming more and more popular, I think it’s wise for all of us to consider some of the issues her situation raises.

First, though some people view blogs as personal journals or letters, they’re not. They’re public forums that are, theoretically, available to millions of people. (Most of us bloggers wish we could reach just a small fraction of that!) Anyone who writes a blog with the notion that the comments are somehow kept private among a select audience of like-minded individuals is naïve.

In fact, provocative content like Munroe’s – calling her students “lazy whiners” – spreads faster than the proverbial wildfire. That’s the nature of the Internet – and of humans.

To me, it’s just unwise to make public comments that could affect one’s relationship with her employer or her customers – students and parents. Munroe may not have identified anyone, but students, parents, other teachers and others in the community surely know her and her school, so it’s disingenuous to contend that no one would feel wounded. If anything, her comments about unidentified people painted all of her students with a broad brush, so even the most conscientious student may feel targeted.

Most people know it’s unwise to criticize one’s employer in a public forum; we recognize that, if word gets back that we’ve bad-mouthed the company’s president, our careers may suffer. There’s even a cliché to describe the situation – biting the hand that feeds us. Consequently, we willingly forfeit some of our First Amendment right to free speech so that we can remain gainfully employed.

That’s not to say that, in the appropriate forum and with the appropriate manner, our employer would not value constructive criticism. The same goes for Munroe’s school; perhaps her thoughts would have been taken more seriously – and she would have caused less of a stir – had she expressed them in a less mean-spirited way and in a more constructive forum. Maybe she would have found a legion of fans if she had offered a thoughtful blog entry that expressed concern for students’ behavior and study habits and offered constructive solutions.

What do you think? Should teachers blog about their schools or students? Are they being held to stricter standards than people in other careers? Have Munroe’s First Amendment rights been violated? Let us know your thoughts.

Sincerely,

The Indiana Partnerships Center encourages and enables parents to engage with their child’s school, to the mutual benefit of the child and the school.  The center, which serves all of Indiana, is one of 62 Parental Information Resource Centers funded by the U.S. Department of Education Office of Innovation and Improvement.