Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Spectrum of Standardized Testing Motivation

On Friday morning, I walked out of my house and heard birds chirping. I couldn't help but feel the excitement of looming (and blooming!) Spring. Other signs have been pointing to the seasonal change-- the sun stays out a bit later, the temperatures begin to grow just a bit warmer, the Phillies are in Spring Training, and our staff are beginning to plan specific testing schedules for the upcoming PSSA. Our teachers and students have been preparing for these state standardized tests since September, but reality is finally setting in that the exams are just one month away!

We all know that PSSA testing is important, and our school carries an "All Hands on Deck" mentality. This is why, as School Counselor, I have been trying to figure out my role in this process and where I can be the most helpful. After meeting with teachers, I have tuned into the reality that there is a spectrum that exists when it comes to standardized testing: A Spectrum of Motivation, which I plan to tackle from both ends. 

For this spectrum to make sense, it is important to recognize the evidence-based link between student mindsets and motivation. Cognitive scientists, psychologists, and educators have researched the large impact that attitudes, anxiety, and stress levels have in student success and achievement in life and school. It is logical that students' attitudes, anxiety, and stress levels play a large role in standardized testing motivation and achievement. 

I created this figure to illustrate the Spectrum of Motivation that appears to exist in our 3rd and 4th grade students. The large section in the middle (between the arrows) is where we would like our students to present-- a low or moderate, productive and healthy level of stress that studies show lead to optimum performance. The ends of the spectrum are of concern, and this is where I will focus my energy in the coming weeks-- to attempt to increase stress and motivation in Group A while decreasing stress and anxiety in Group B to healthy levels, which will hopefully optimize their performance.

Motivation Team (Target Group A)
Teachers have selected a group of students who appear to have an apathetic attitude toward PSSA testing-- they have voiced that the tests will not impact their grades and therefore, they do not take the practice tests seriously, putting minimal effort toward preparing. Research on motivation explains that it can be intrinsic (self-driven) or extrinsic (reward-driven). Research has shown intrinsic motivation to be the most effective in increasing performance. The challenge in our case is that PSSA scores are not tied to anything that would be intrinsically motivating for our students-- they do not have any ties to their report card grades or course eligibility in the upper elementary levels. This means that we will have to focus on extrinsic rewards to boost motivation and performance.

I have found behavioral economics research that explains the most productive way to extrinsically motivate students to perform their best on tests. This Motivation Team will be the student leaders in guiding a school-wide PSSA Motivation Plan, where students will earn tokens (bracelets or ribbons, for example) for the amount of effort they put into their testing. This plan is in the beginning stages, but we will use the behavioral economics research to maximize effectiveness, make sure that students focus on EFFORT (we will operationally define 'effort' for our students) and not what scores they receive, and reward based on daily effort. Our Motivation Team will be key players in planning and implementing this program, and we hope that their important roles will boost their motivation as well. 

S.T.A.R.T.: Student Test Anxiety Reduction Team (Target Group B)
Teachers have identified these students who exhibit symptoms of anxiety before or during testing. With parental permission, I will meet with these students in a small counseling group to share strategies for lowering test anxiety. We will also discuss test taking methods to help this group feel more confident and relaxed going into the testing. Interventions will include test taking strategy review, relaxation exercises, and discussion on the impact of the testing. 

This year will be my pilot testing for these programs, and I plan on collecting data to use for reflection and program enhancement in the future. I look forward to leading these two teams through a journey of healthy, productive standardized test taking!

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