Education has been a crucial topic as we grapple with the aftereffects of the pandemic, especially regarding learning outcomes. As students return to classrooms, there is a greater need for support as they adjust to being in a learning environment.
State tests and other initiatives have been used as a yardstick to understand student performance on a broader scale using standardized tests. And as reports emerge of dwindling NAEP scores and increased difficulty in learning for students, how we approach learning moving forward is a subject we need to consider. Again, the intent is not to invoke fear but instead to think about how we improve learning outcomes for children in and out of school to help make the adjustment process smoother.
Understanding the significance of falling test scores
The first thing to consider is how learning outcomes are measured and what the scores are meant to communicate. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is widely considered to be the nation’s report card and a way to measure educational progress. Unfortunately, the most recent scores released by the NAEP have shown stark drops in scores among nine-year-olds in math and reading. Although the decline was seen across income levels and races, the scores were even lower for the lowest-performing students.
For many children, it’s the first time they are in a traditional school environment after a very long time, so, understandably, test-taking and learning as a whole will come with some speedbumps. Nevertheless, these scores essentially show us that the pandemic has not been easy, and education has been deeply impacted. Pre-pandemic progress has essentially taken a massive step back, as the scores indicate, and children are clearly struggling. Test scores are just one measure, of course, but they are important for understanding where challenges are and, more importantly, who is being affected.
That is why it’s so important to focus on measures that parents can take at home to bring that progress back to where it was - and go beyond that. The stress caused by the pandemic has taken an emotional toll on students and parents, and we see the result of that with these scores. While the scores aren’t the only way to measure progress, they do signal a need to spend extra time with children in areas such as math and reading. Improving student test scores will not necessarily happen overnight, but developing the key skills and qualities will help with long-term student success.
What can you do to improve test scores?
As we adjust to life now that the pandemic has come to an end, parents can start to take decisive action to improve educational outcomes.
But what does that actually look like in practice? What is a good way to raise test scores for children moving forward?
The truth is that there isn’t one solid way to improve testing scores, but there are measures you can take at home to develop good study habits. Combined with some form of test prep, these measures can ultimately make test day a less stressful experience for students overall.
1. Focus on executive skill development
In the past, we’ve written about the importance of homework for children and how to motivate children to become more engaged in their learning. Much of the same applies when we think about NAEP scores and educational outcomes moving forward. Giving our children the space and resources to practice their knowledge and develop cognitive skills is key to moving forward. There are many different types of learners, but there are core executive skills that can help students starting from elementary school all the way up to high school and college.
But it’s also important to look at the behaviors that occur while learning, as that may hold the key for fledgling NAEP scores. Children need immediate help with their performance because there is a gap in their ability to focus and process information. In addition, strengthening executive skill functions such as working memory and cognitive flexibility is crucial as part of their ongoing development.
Working memory and cognitive flexibility are needed for goal-setting, problem-solving, reasoning, and many other abilities that will serve students well. These functions can be strengthened through regular cognitive games such as puzzles, learning new skills, and practicing existing skill sets. Additionally, Through regular practice and exercise, parents and students can work together to improve their abilities and performance.
2. Ask more questions
With any standardized testing, one of the common tips that you’ll see is to ask more questions about different content areas. The term cognitive flexibility comes back with this tip - the more questions you ask, the more it gives children the ability to reason and problem-solve.
Homework and other study tools are not meant to be memorization tools, but rather, they should be used as an opportunity to ask questions and deepen learning. Creating meaningful dialogue around education and what’s being studied can help with cognitive flexibility while also helping children solidify what they’ve learned. An added bonus is that this can help students develop better communication skills and ways to express themselves and their feelings more concretely.
3. Incorporate reflection and evaluation
Asking questions is one way to encourage cognitive flexibility. Another method is to create a space for reflection and evaluation. For example, asking children to reflect back on something they have read or tell you a summary of what they read can help with cognitive development.
When they learn a new skill or are introduced to new concepts, asking children to reflect on the activity is crucial. As they encounter new ideas and practice existing skills, evaluating what they have done well on and what they need improvement on can help with developing skills like reasoning and goal-setting.
4. Make positive reinforcement a priority
There is a lot of pressure on children to return to a type of ‘normal’ school routine, especially when they are at a stage in their development where they are trying to establish what normal is. As students improve reading skills and other subject areas, positive reinforcement can be incredibly valuable in reducing stress during test season. Positive reinforcement and encouragement are necessary for children to feel confident in an educational environment and to stay motivated.
Encouragement can take many different forms - from words of affirmation to working on hands-on projects and experiments where children can see their learnings come to life and explore interests. The type of encouragement will differ based on what child’s interest and learning style, but incorporating some form of positive reinforcement can help children feel supported and encouraged from an early age.
5. Address difficult areas early on
Many children struggle to express themselves when they struggle, especially in critical areas like math and reading. This ultimately impacts their confidence and ability to test-take.
Keeping an open dialogue with children as they learn new concepts and work to improve their current understanding can help you proactively identify areas where your child may need additional support. Tutoring can be a supplement to their current study routine and provide an avenue where they can work through challenges at their own pace. For individual students finding it difficult to adjust back to a fast-paced teaching environment, tutoring can help with bridging that gap and give children a chance to explore on their own time.
6. Make room for higher-level development
As children grow and mature, their current curriculum, of course, is a priority in learning. However, there are many initiatives that you can undertake beyond that to support their learning and development.
Nurturing their interests and hobbies on a higher level outside of class time can help with cognitive skill development while also creating an environment where children enjoy learning. Improving test results long-term is about developing critical thinking skills in different areas of student learning to develop a more well-rounded approach to learning. Whether it’s short courses before students head back to school or private 1:1 lessons during the school year, student achievement based on what they are interested in is incredibly important to instill learning habits from the get-go.
7. Spend time on test preparation
How you spend time on test-taking will differ based on individual habits and the time available. However, it can include practicing a specific test format for problem-solving skills and developing habits as a test-taker, including how to work out problems and different question formats.
Although public schools do offer resources, there is definitely benefit in continuing the school districts’ work at home to help students feel more confident during test day. In addition, many types of practice tests are available depending on the grade level, including a practice reading test and/or math test that students can take. The fact that it’s a less high-stakes environment can make them more comfortable with the test format itself and reduces some of the stress associated with test day.
Standardized testing will always be around in some form, and test prep can help students feel more confident when testing season rolls around. Regardless of age group, children from elementary school, middle school, and high school students can all benefit from some form of test prep.
Outside of test prep, the tips shared can go a long way in developing long-term study habits that will serve children well throughout their education journey. Of course, test-taking is just one part of the student experience, but connecting it back to skill development and learning can make it a better experience for children, parents, and teachers.
Although test scores may not paint the rosiest picture at the moment, it’s important to see them as a snapshot of a current experience rather than forecasting.
For parents, test scores are a way to understand the current student experience and work towards improving it moving forward so that children can fully access and appreciate the educational resources available to them. Nurturing and developing study habits can lead to a more enriching educational experience and provide children with the tools and resources needed for personal and even professional development as they grow up.