Seattle's Child

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Preparing for Smarter Balance

Teacher and mom Jennifer Pontius believes that annual student assessments help kids practice important life skills. Photo by Joshua Huston

Don’t opt-out of standardized testing

For most kids the benefits of Smarter Balance outweigh the anxiety

May is standardized testing month. Many high school students and all kids in grades 3 to 8 will soon have a battery of state tests to tackle. 

As a teacher, I am expected by many to bemoan standardized testing, complaining about the stress it puts on students and educators. But there will be none of that from me. 

I’m in favor of testing. 

The productive anxiety of high-stakes testing 

From Japan to Finland to Seattle, standardized testing is necessary for public education. Educators and researchers rely on the data it provides, and students benefit from practicing high-stakes academic situations. That’s why Washington state has required public schools to administer the Smarter Balanced Assessments (SBA) since 2015.

My own kids are in elementary school. As both a teacher and a mom, I believe testing is essential and strengthens kids’ abilities and resiliency. I want my daughters to face stressors and challenges, forcing them to stretch and grow. Practicing coping with and meeting challenges now, in a variety of settings, will help build their confidence.  

My students also need to experience the productive anxiety of high-stakes testing. During testing week, they learn they can power through nerves and self-doubt to conquer a test. They also discover they can write an essay without AI, read for an hour straight, or complete challenging math problems. When nervous middle school students pass the 10th-grade SBA, they learn they are more intelligent than they think. 

Think twice about the opt-out option

All families have the right to insist their child not participate in state testing, and they give many reasons for doing so. However, testing does not affect grades, so I urge parents to think again if they’re considering an opt-out.

Here’s what I have seen in the classroom: Anxiety leads to avoidance, which leads to increased anxiety and increased avoidance. Removing anxiety from kids’ lives usually compounds the problem, whereas encouraging kids to cope with anxiety-inducing situations while they are young helps them rise to challenges when the stakes are higher in the future.

Of course, every child and situation is different. But before you opt your child out of SBA testing, consider that doing so may inadvertently support a counterproductive avoidance spiral. Talk to your child’s counselor or therapist to gain more insights as you decide.

 What is measured can be improved

Testing data gives teachers immediate feedback about students’ skills. Without it, tracking where students are improving or declining, what policies are working best for kids, and the effectiveness of various teaching methods would be nearly impossible. 

Standardized testing is the only way to get this data because grades are highly subjective. GPAs have risen since the pandemic, but testing and anecdotal data show academic declines. This grade inflation likely results from policies implemented during online learning (for example, giving a student 50% credit instead of a zero for missing assignments). Testing data can illuminate the issue so districts can make better grading decisions moving forward.  

Prep for college admissions

Standardized tests are making a comeback in college admissions. In 2020, many colleges dropped the SAT/ACT requirement. However, top-tier universities like Yale, MIT, and Brown are reversing course. In January 2024, David Leonhardt published a piece in the New York Times about how standardized test scores contain the most accurate information to predict success. 

According to Leonhardt: “Test scores can be particularly helpful in identifying lower-income students and underrepresented minorities who will thrive.” 

Prospective community college students typically take a placement test that allows them to enroll in college-level classes. A passing SBA score waives the need to take that test.   

A critical life skill

University admissions are just one place where testing occurs. A standardized test is required for the military, for obtaining a driver’s license, and for job promotions in many businesses and industries. Learning how to take a high-stakes test is a life skill.

It is a generous gift of life that we will typically improve at whatever we practice. Band members practice scales, and track athletes run laps. Kids heading to college or in myriad other life directions need to practice taking tests.    

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About the Author

Jenna Vandenberg

Jenna Vandenberg is a Seattle-area writer, runner, mom of two, and high school teacher. Her service on a national book review committee keeps her happily surrounded in stories.