Students who struggle with focus and time management may not do well on standardized tests — isn't there a better way to let kids show what they know?
by Jeff Stickler
As the school year wound down, our daughter took state standardized tests. She didn’t mind it — or so she told us. After all, she got to skip homework during testing week. School policy is for teachers not to assign homework so that students can relax and get plenty of sleep. All of this reminded me of my own middle and high school state testing experiences. Things weren’t like they are today; we certainly didn’t get a homework break. (Please, no “You’re so old” jokes. Thank you!)
As a licensed teacher, I understand how important test scores are to administrators these days. Our state recently started grading schools on an A – F scale and test scores weight heavily in the grading formula. I see standardized tests a lot differently as a person living with ADHD.
My symptoms fluctuate quite a bit. I have what I call “good brain days” and “bad brain days”. As a student, I had no problem concentrating on my work without medication on “good brain days." But on “bad brain days," my mind raced and I was easily distracted. There was no hope of concentrating on the test.
It didn’t help that we took our tests by grade level with our entire high school class crammed into the auditorium. Having an empty seat on either side of me didn’t help at all! There were too many noises and movements to distract me. Since high school, I’ve learned that it takes a student 10 minutes to get back to full concentration after being disrupted. It took me 15–20 minutes to regain focus.
If you’re not a person living with ADHD, here’s what it’s like. Imagine that the sequel to a book or movie you loved just came out. You’ve been looking forward to it for months. Now, imagine that you’ve read the first two chapters of your book, or you're 30 minutes into the movie. You’re completely engrossed in the story now! Think about what it would feel like if you suddenly had to stop reading or watching and couldn’t come back to it right away. It’s something you really want to do, but you just can’t get back to read or watch the movie.
Multiply that feeling by ten! You’re beginning to understand what it’s like to live with ADHD symptoms. I wanted to do well on the tests; in fact, I wanted to do well in all school subjects. Unfortunately, when you have attention deficit, you're easily distracted and, if you’re like me, you’re time sensitive. A distraction leads to a long series of thoughts, and time melts away. You can’t get back to the test despite your best effort.
I wonder how accurate a picture standardized test scores really paint. If test-taking is like this for students living with ADHD, how many students without disability symptoms just have a bad day and do poorly? They may actually be worse off in some ways. Students living with learning disabilities or ADHD symptoms can get academic accommodations like extra time on tests. The rest of the students just have to do their best.
Students have such a wide variety of learning styles and backgrounds. I wonder whether one test can really gauge student learning. There has to be a better way to assess student learning than pencil and paper tests, too. As a classroom teacher, I used more projects than most teachers did at my school, but I still had to prepare students to take the state standardized tests.
I hold out some hope that the system of standardized testing will die out so administrators don’t have to suffer state test anxiety. I know our education leaders are creative and can change the system so all student learners can show what they know.