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Are teachers unwittingly contributing to testing anxiety?

As the state adopts tougher tests to measure how much students know, parents and education leaders worry the new climate is contributing to student stress — and that teachers aren’t helping.

Those are among observations offered this week during a meeting led by state Education Commissioner Candice McQueen to address testing policies at both the state and local levels.

Virginia Babb, a Knox County parent, said parents often are confused by jargon used by the state Department of Education. Misunderstandings abound, she said, about what tests are used for and how they’re scored.

“There’s educator-speak, and then there’s the way the rest of the world talks,” said Babb, a member of the Knox County Parent-Teacher Association.

The second meeting of McQueen’s testing task force turned to testing anxiety early during the half-day session, held Wednesday at the First Amendment Center in Nashville.

“You want results to mean something. You want folks to take it seriously. But how do you balance that? How do you balance, ‘I want you to perform, but I don’t want you to have such anxiety about it that it defeats your performance?’” McQueen asked fellow task force members, which include superintendents, teachers, lawmakers, one parent and a high school student.

In recent months, testing anxiety has struck a national chord, with everyone from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to HBO comedian John Oliver weighing in.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen (right) discusses assessments during a task force meeting.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen (right) discusses assessments during a task force meeting.

G. Tatter

McQueen, who became commissioner in January, convened the task force in March to address concerns that Tennessee students take too many tests, and to make sure district and school assessments aren’t redundant when paired with annual state assessments. The task force is part of McQueen’s effort to be responsive to teachers, something the Department of Education has been criticized for failing to do during recent years amidst sweeping education reforms.

Task force members shared conversations about testing they’ve had with educators, parents and community members.

Kingsport teacher Valerie Love said miscommunication about testing leads to “misunderstanding and mistrust.” She said parents are far more likely to trust the results of teacher-created assessments than state assessments.

Others said teachers sometimes unwittingly create stress for students by describing the stakes for teachers and how test results impact their evaluation scores, which in turn can affect job security.

“For students who don’t care, putting your personal stress on them won’t make them care. But it will hurt the kids who want to do well,” said Jasmine Carlisle, a junior at Mt. Juliet High School, the only student on the panel.

Members offered recommendations to reduce anxiety, which likely will be included in their final report, due this summer. The meeting also covered the structure of TNReady, the assessment that will replace the state’s current math and English standardized tests beginning this fall as part of the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP).

Recommendations included never studying test-taking skills in isolation and communicating to teachers about the potential hazards of telling students about their own test-related stress.

The state has adopted several measures in an effort to pare testing anxiety, including shortening the length of assessments to fall  into windows of 45 minutes to an hour.

State education leaders also instructed teachers to stop covering classroom bulletin boards, noting that the practice contributes to an uneasy learning environment. “We’re putting butcher paper companies out of business,” said Deb Malone-Sauberer, executive director of assessment logistics for the Department of Education.

The task force is scheduled to meet next on June 16 to discuss K-2 testing, accountability and RTI2 (Response to Instruction and Intervention, an education framework used across the country to identify students’ academic needs early).

Contact Grace Tatter at gtatter@chalkbeat.org.

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