My very first year as a classroom teacher I had this student, a very sweet 4th grade boy, who was not interested in doing schoolwork. He never gave me any behavior problems; he even participated in class, but when it came to actually doing work, putting pencil to paper, he wasn't interested. On the morning of TAKS testing day, the state-summative assessment in Texas at the time, I made a last-ditch effort to get through to him. I walked up to him and said, "Look, if you don't pass this test, they are going to think that I didn't do my job all year, and they are going to think that you don't know anything. So, can you please try, for me?" Smiling that happy-go-lucky smile that made him both endearing and frustrating at the same time, he responded, "OK, Miss." He aced the test.
Out of desperation, I took a gamble saying what I said to my student, and I got lucky. For a different child, hearing something like that could have caused a lot of extra stress and test anxiety. This illustrates the inner turmoil that we face as teachers when it comes to high-stakes assessments. Whether we like it or not, the scores matter, and we have to walk a fine line in communicating their importance to our students. We want them to know that they should try their very best, but we also don't want them to be too stressed out or anxious or, worst of all, to break down if they fail.
And, inevitably, some students will fail. Then what? How do we help them recover from failing a test we have spent the entire school year telling them they need to pass? It’s a tricky situation, but addressing it head-on is key to helping students rebound. Here are four things that you can do to help your students cope with failing a high-stakes assessment.
Relate to students on a personal level
One of the best ways to connect with someone is through shared experience. So, when you have to break the news to your students that they did not pass the state assessment, share a personal anecdote of a failure that you have had. The more closely the story ties to what the students are going through, the better. Choose an experience when you tried hard, were not successful, kept trying, and eventually got it. It parallels what they are going through and helps them see that even you, their teacher who seems like the smartest person in the world, struggle too.
Help them understand what the test does and doesn't measure
Another way to help your students cope with failing a state-summative test is to help them understand what the test actually measures. I usually would say something like: "This test measures how well you answered questions on one day out of the entire school year. It is not a measure of how smart you are or what you can achieve. We have to take them because it's a way to assess the progress of a lot of students at the same time." Be careful, though, not to speak too negatively of the assessments because you don't want students to feel any bitterness or resentment or to not take them seriously in the future.
Remind students of their progress, and praise their efforts
Even if students have failed the state-summative assessment, they have likely had some successes in your classroom and made progress during the school year. Now is the time to point out these things. Talk about how their independent reading level has improved, or how they have mastered multiplication facts when, at the beginning of the year, they were still struggling with multi-digit addition. Reminding students of how they have grown and praising them for it will not only cheer them up but also help them understand that they can and will continue to grow and learn.
Develop an action plan
Once your students have come to terms with failure, the next step in helping them overcome failure is to develop a plan to address weak areas. Building the plan will help your students improve and, at the same time, allow them to see that you believe they can improve too. The confidence you show in them is contagious, and before long, they’ll catch it too.
These tips will help you counsel students after they experience a failure, but talking to your students about the value of failure and persistence throughout the school year can help them bounce back more easily. Check out this blog post for five tips to develop a growth mindset in your classroom!