Standardized testing causes stress for many students. But at Buxmont Academy Elementary Program at Pottstown, in Pennsylvania, the staff takes a restorative approach to these tests, which not only reduces students’ anxiety, but can actually integrate standardized testing into a restorative environment.
“The first time we had to administer the PSSAs [Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests], we just did it, without thinking about it, says Jessica Petrolati, coordinator of Pottstown Elementary. “But the students got so upset! Many of our students have learning difficulties, so the tests just made them feel really bad about themselves. Ever since, we have approached the tests very differently.”
First of all, school staff holds a circle so the children can say how they feel about taking the test. The students are used to circles, so talking about the PSSAs is natural. “We give them the space to be frustrated about it,” says Petrolati.
“One little boy came into our school barely able to read at all. He’s reading better now, but he has to take the 3rd grade PSSA. He knew this, and he was very stressed out this morning [test day]. He only wanted a hug.”
In the circle, says Petrolati, “We say to the children, ‘You’re right; it can be frustrating.’ We tell them: ‘These aren’t a grade for you. They’re about how we are doing as teachers. And when you’re done with the test, you can go outside and play.’ ” This helps decrease the anxiety the children feel.
Also in the circle, the children set their own “norms” for the tests, which they are accustomed to doing for many things in their school, from behavior in the classroom, the park and at lunchtime, to sharing iPads. They say what they need to happen for them during the tests so the experience will be less stressful.
Says Petrolati, “One boy does well on these tests but takes a long time and needs quiet. He came into school this morning and said, ‘I’ve got a really good concentration brain on!’ In the circle, he made sure the other kids knew what he needed. He told them, ‘Even if you’re done, you still need to sit there quietly, because some of us work slower.’ ”
The students set these norms for the PSSAs: Sit quietly. Try your best. Stay in your seat. If you have a question, raise your hand. Respect others.
In this way, the students have control over the process. Even standardized tests become a with process, not so much something done to them.
“Our students, who came into school bouncing off the walls, were able to sit silently for two hours this morning and work on their tests,” Petrolati concludes. “When they have to do these stressful types of things, we give them the opportunity to get their frustrations out. That’s just what we do.”