By day, I’m a calm, mild-mannered middle school teacher who would do just about anything to motivate my students to do their best work and fall in love with learning. I praise their achievements and efforts, not just their high scores, and then watch those scores improve. When they stumble, I help them see how to pick themselves back up and forge ahead. I help them to see why their learning is vitally important, and they respond by caring and trying harder.
By night, I am the mom of two daughters, and much of my hard-won professional acumen goes out the window. When I walk into the door of my house, I transform, like Dr. Jekyll, into crazed paranoid parent with terrible judgment.
I get particularly erratic when one of my children is studying for a really big test. Now that my oldest daughter actually has to pass freshman biology, geometry, and advanced French—all at the same time—I have been known to lose my cool, to threaten, to bribe, and to over-react. I worry, not entirely without reason, that a string of low scores at age 15 will scar her for life. I lose my perspective, staring into the abyss that could open up and swallow my child whole if she fails a midterm.
Panicking on my daughter’s behalf, I fall back on shrieking phrases sounding like the kind of parent who makes her kid run away from home in an after-school special:
- “If you don’t study for that test, you’ll fail the class and have to go to summer school!”
- “This is really important! Kids who don’t do well on this test can’t get into the AP sections and end up with fewer college choices.”
- “Why didn’t you take any notes in history this year? If you don’t have anything to study for that test, you’re going to fail!”
Yes. I have actually said all these things. And worse.
The problem with this sort of motivational mom talk? It’s been proven not to work.
My family lives in New York City, where children as young as 4 endure admissions tests before earning their way into the most coveted schools—“magnet” schools, or “gifted” programs, or the private schools like the ones where I have spent my teaching career. Tiny New Yorkers imbibe the stress of high-stakes tests along with their nursery-school graham crackers, and very real distinctions among kids’ educational opportunities are put in place very early.
This mania for testing is spreading past the borders of Brooklyn and the Bronx. Students across the nation have dreaded the SAT for generations, but only recently has high-stakes testing for elementary and middle school students become commonplace in the world outside urban centers. These tests are becoming more frequent—and vastly more important to students, teachers, principals, and parents—every year. Testing, teacher evaluation, and school reform are becoming more powerfully linked.
Defenders believe rigorous tests lead to better teaching and better learning only when the tests have sharp teeth: Students, educators, principals, and even whole schools face dire consequences if kids don’t do well. It’s a giant experiment, involving millions of children. But until I see results demonstrating that this mania for testing actually helps students learn, I’m reserving judgment.
“Students who feel threatened by their teachers’ messages that focused on failure reported feeling less motivated and scored worse on the exam than students who said their teacher used fewer fear tactics that they considered less threatening.” But one thing I’m certain about—our kids are not oblivious to the importance of tests. Some of them hear that the tests are meaningless. Some of them hear that their own future, or their teacher’s future, or their school’s future rests in their failure or their success. And a lot of them worry that they won’t do well. It’s like a whole nation is shrieking at the kids of America: “If you don’t do well on this test, we’ll all fail!”
Given the ubiquity of tests, what does the research tell us about the kinds of messages that best inspire our students to work hard, learn a lot, and succeed?
1. Going negative just does not work very well.
The kinds of threats that I have used on my daughter—study harder, or you’ll fail—are unlikely to inspire effective studying and actually can lead to lower scores. Feeling anxious about a test takes up important mental energy—energy that students need to use on the test itself.
According to an April 21, 2014, article published in the School Psychology Quarterly, students who reported feeling “threatened by their teachers’ messages that frequently focused on failure reported feeling less motivated and scored worse on the exam than students who said their teacher used fewer fear tactics that they considered less threatening.”
The study sorted out the very real differences in results inspired by a negative message like, “You need to work harder so you won’t fail,” instead of a supportive, encouraging “This exam is really important, and if you want to succeed, you’ll need to work hard to pass.” While this distinction seems subtle—and perhaps obvious to all those perfect moms and ideal teachers out there who never threaten children with the looming, anxiety-producing threat of failure—the difference in students’ reactions was real.
2. Praising hard work, not high scores, is more effective.
Teachers have also learned, from psychologists like Carol Dweck, the author of Mindset, that a student’s mindset about hard work is more crucial to her success than her innate “talent.” Dweck has taught us not to praise kids with high scores for being “smart,” as this is likely to undermine their drive to work hard and to take risks and make mistakes. Teachers and parents who understand Dweck’s message praise risk-taking and effort, helping students to develop learning habits that will serve them best in the long run.
3. Stereotypes matter.
Sociological studies on student performance also show us that some students are more likely to underperform on tests when they’re worried about fulfilling a negative stereotype of their race, class, gender, or other identifying characteristic. Girls, for example, do worse on tests of math and science in part because of their awareness of the stereotype that girls do worse on math and science tests. Psychologists call this effect stereotype threat.
In his book Whistling Vivaldi, sociologist Claude Steele describes some of the reasons behind underperformance based on perception and identity. According to him, simply telling our students that we have confidence in them and their preparation can go a long way to defusing the sort of anxiety that gets in their way.
So the takeaway for parents and teachers swept into the vortex of testing mania?
- Inspire students by helping them to see that their hard work has a purpose that will improve their lives and the lives of those around them.
- Build up students’ confidence by teaching them to work hard to improve their skills.
- Praise their tenacity and curiosity, not just their high scores.
And one last bit of advice?
- Do as I do at school, not as I do at home.