3rd Graders’ Test Anxiety: Taking Rigor Beyond Necessity

broken pencil

Rigor was a word thrown around my district a few years ago as the word or phrase of the year. The phrase that would catapult my district toward greater things — apparently.


Well I don’t know the reality of catapulting into greatness, but I can speak toward how it makes teachers feel.

It isn’t reassuring. In fact it comes across to me as prescriptive of issues someone determined to be important because of research found at the top of the latest pile of hot topics.

When your students are already facing the challenges that a Title 1 school experiences, hearing that the bar will be raised yet again is the rug being pulled out from under us.

I’m already counseling my students through family issues that would make you cry. I’m calling up parents whose telephone numbers are no longer in service. I’m feeling like it’s all on my already.

And now you want to raise the bar.

When one already has high expectations of his students, hearing that someone else is going to define the type of rigor that should be introduced is paramount to being told I have no clue. I’ve had parents claim my expectations are too high and get downright upset with me, so I think I’ve got a little clue about expectations.

When someone, somewhere wants to redefine rigor I wonder if they’ve visited the classroom recently – because it isn’t naptime and finger painting. Those options ended with the memory of those of us who were educated well before state assessments. Now it’s test taking strategies and analyzing word problems. It’s determining author’s purpose and having the type of background knowledge often missing from students’ lives in which making ends meet is the priority – they don’t take a trip to the ocean to better understand the ecology of dunes and how seagrasses will disrupt erosion.

That’s a whole different conversation. The same conversation in which students don’t know what you’re talking about when you ask them if they’ve gone downtown to see the skyscrapers – about 20 miles to the North from my school.

So when rigor and relevance was plastered on the subject of welcome back emails some time back, it was one more phrase thrown at us mere days before students arrive in our classroom.

Teachers, and I believe most other humans would also fit into this category, do not enjoy being labeled as experts when they’ve just been trained in a newly acquired skill. The necessity for being the expert was reiterated when we were informed that it would be part of our evaluation criteria for the year.

Each year we’re expected to be experts as a result of the “excellent” training that occurred one quick morning of teacher work week by folks we have often never met. This is the same week when we’re, to be honest, a bit distracted. Teachers are in fact much more interested in knowing our students’ names and getting that very important first week planned just so. We want nothing more than to organize our room to be as welcoming as one can make a sterile classroom that, in my case, had been around for well over half a century.

Every teacher that surrounds me in both my grade or in those that are a year below or above is more interested in understanding their new students’ challenges, any specific disabilities and accompanying Individual Education Plans, and as a result trying to make them comfortable that first day of school. We are already at the copier, creating our databases of home telephone numbers, and labeling folders or assignment pads in hopes of starting the year off on a good note.

Yes, great timing to introduce a buzzword.

Rigor. Perhaps they threw in the alliteration of relevance too because, well, it sounded good. Rigor and relevance. It’s still a blur to me as most back to school weeks are every year.

Fast forward a full half a year later when rigor also became the buzzword the Commonwealth of Virginia used as the new “improved” SOLs were unveiled to us.

Unveiled not a year or two prior so we could prepare our students – way too rationale.

Unveiled instead a few months before my students were to take them. Yes, a few short months. Did I mention that little to no resources accompanied this emphasis on making the assessments more rigorous? More rationality.

I am hoping this begins to describe to you why many teachers are more, not less, anxious as the years pass by. There’s little rhyme or reason except for the reality that there’s almost never any rhyme or reason. Makes sense?

Not to me.

Fast forward to this year.

This year I’m offered a new perspective. One through the eyes of a third grader.

When I thought that the SOLs might be intimidating to 5th graders I failed to realize how they seem to 3rd graders.

My memories of my own 3rd grade year of school are slim, no question.  I remember the halls and I have a brief memory of the nurse’s office when she applied some spray to my skinned knee that felt as if fire was intended to be a healing agent.

What my memories don’t entail are state assessments or the time spent preparing for them. Unfortunately my third graders know all too well about SOLs after today.

Today they took their first SOL. I won’t comment on their performance because I’m not allowed to and, well, I have no idea. We’ve only taken Part One allowing my students to go home and fret about what tomorrow entails. After tomorrow I may know more, I may not. I expect I’ll know immediately if they don’t do as well as I have tried to prepare them.

What I do know is that seeing an eight or nine year old worry about, no, stress about, a state exam is just plain unhealthy. It’s well beyond necessary.

It’s just plain unhealthy.

I know legislators are human beings. I’ve seen them on the news much like you have and I hear that they don’t always play nice with each other.

My father-in-law is constantly involved in local issues in his district that demand constituents’ involvement, so I know that real people are interested in accomplishing real things in our state and national legislative houses.

But they’ve gone terribly wrong on the notion that we have to assess students who are still learning to play nice themselves. Students who worry more and play less. Students who hurt more than most of us can imagine. Now my students have to worry about a state assessment that asks questions that would make adults nervous.

I mentioned that they’re about eight years old right?

The state assessment in which my students achieved high marks for knowing how to read and write was what I considered tough, but fair. They were assessed on mathematical competency and scientific inquiry that required the type of skills necessary for what I envision necessary as they progress into middle school.

This however has changed dramatically.

Rigor was the guise under which reading was intertwined with mathematics and when rewording questions to be answers that demand test-takers to sort through questions has become something downright cruel.

Here’s a great one…

TEI test itemThere are now what’s called TEI (Technology Enhanced Items) questions that ask students to determine when more than one answer might be correct. I’ve included a sample above.
If I remember correctly, my university Math Logic Class (I still believe is quite the odd name for a class) determines that the problem above has 15 possible combinations – there will be at least one so that removes the 16th option which is none are correct. Follow?
Therefore, a student has a one in 15 chance of getting this problem correct, before using strategies to begin eliminating incorrect options.
One in fifteen? Really? Seriously!?
This is rigor. This is third grade.
This, in my opinion, is ridiculous.
I’d be very interested in hearing your thoughts and experiences on what your state or district is expecting of your students. I’m hopeful someone, somewhere with some clout is asking a legislator to take the same assessment given to a 3rd grader.
I’d be very interested in knowing their final score.

2 thoughts on “3rd Graders’ Test Anxiety: Taking Rigor Beyond Necessity”

  1. Write more, thats all I have to say. Literally, it seems as though you relied on the video to
    make your point. You clearly know what youre talking
    about, why throw away your intelligence on just
    posting videos to your site when you could be giving us
    something informative to read?

    1. Thanks for the comment Martin. I’ve posted these videos as I think about them often and reference them to others. Finally a chance to have a few of them in one place to point others to. I’ll keep writing though… thanks again.

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