Friday, October 1, 2004

Schools grapple with test stress

By Cindy Kranz
Enquirer staff writer

Third-grade teacher Mae O'Hara at Howard Elementary School in Deer Park counsels her students as they perform muscle relaxation techniques before a test. "Everyone feels distress, but do we have to give into it?" she asks.
They can't sleep. Their heads are throbbing. Some even vomit.

Signs of a serious illness?

No, they're symptoms of test stress on kids.

Standardized tests kick into high gear next week with the Ohio Third Grade Reading Achievement Test.

Much is at stake for schools, which depend on good test results for their district and school ratings.

As the number of standardized tests administered increases, stress over these exams trickles down from administrators to teachers, to kids.

And the stress is piling on at a younger age.

Teachers are trying different strategies to help them cope.

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In Deer Park, 20 third-graders at Howard Elementary lie flat on their backs on the floor, preparing for the Reading Achievement Test.

The students are practicing progressive muscle relaxation and visualization techniques to relieve stress before they take a language arts test similar to the state exam they'll take next week.

"Everyone feels distress, but do we have to give into it?" their teacher, Mae O'Hara, asks.

Students first sit on the floor to tighten and relax muscles. Little faces are scrunched into grimaces as they make fists to release stress from their bodies. When muscles are worked, O'Hara asks them to lie down and imagine they are at the beach, feeling the warmth of the sand and hearing the sound of gulls.

"I want you to keep that happy feeling. ... Being nervous doesn't make you better at the test. I want you to stay in your happy, warm spot."

O'Hara has been using this technique with her students for five years. She sees firsthand how test stress manifests itself with headaches, stomach aches, aggression.

In her 17 years of teaching, she's noticed kids' stress levels edging up.

Tests are only part of it.

"We've got divorces going on and all kinds of factors in their lives that are beyond their control," O'Hara says. "And then I'm asking them to do a test that is pretty much a grade level above what the previous tests used to be about five years ago."

More and more schools are trying to calm frazzled nerves with deep breathing exercises, additional tutoring to prepare for tests and healthy breakfasts the morning of the exams. Teachers give practice tests so kids become familiar with the testing format. They try to make test preparation more fun by playing Jeopardy-like games.

Lisa Kayes, a third-grade teacher at Mount Healthy's Frost Elementary, is always trying new things to promote literacy. Her boyfriend, David Blau of Fort Thomas, built a loft in her classroom. With its carpet and cozy pillows, the loft is in big demand, and students are assigned certain days they can go there to read.

Anne Ehrman, now an eighth-grader at Colerain Middle School, suffered significant stress in the fourth grade because of the Ohio Proficiency Test, says her mother, Susan Ehrman."We were encouraged by our family doctor to use Tylenol PM to help her sleep," Ehrman said. "She was having insomnia and nightmares starting about four weeks before the tests were due to be given. Her whole personality was changing due to stress and sleep disturbances.

"She has always been an A student. Her stress was high mainly because her teachers were constantly talking about how important these tests were to their whole school ... She is now older and better at handling stress in general, but testing will never be her friend."


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