With student achievement becoming one of the driving concerns in many school district action plans, parents are often encouraged to “do their part” in supporting school efforts to boost their child’s test scores. The fact is, there is no way you can guarantee any particular score or increment of growth for your child. But there are many ways you can ensure the optimized learning and enhanced mastery of grade-appropriate skills and content – efforts that are sure to result in the highest possible test scores.

Arm Your Child with Test-Taking Strategies

When it comes to doing well on tests, there’s no substitute for learning. After all, standardized and criterion-referenced tests are supposed to assess student mastery of what is being taught in the schools. Nevertheless, familiarizing your child with test-taking strategies can reduce missed items that are caused by such controllable factors as carelessness and misunderstanding of test format.

Here are a few guidelines that will help anyone succeed on a test:

  • Don’t Rush– Many careless mistakes can be avoided by reading the question carefully and thinking about each answer.
  • Don’t Belabor– If you find yourself spending too much time on question, mark it and come back after you have completed the rest of the test. (Your child will need to follow the teacher’s instructions regarding marks on the test. While he can probably mark the test booklet, the test answer sheet itself needs to be free of any stray marks that can cause problems when scoring automatically.)
  • Do Follow Directions– Make sure that you listen carefully when the teacher reads the directions. If you don’t understand something, make sure you ask for clarification. Chances are good that if you did not understand, someone else didn’t either but was afraid to ask.
  • Do Be Confident– Read the question, then think up the answer before you look at the offered responses. Your first guess will often be the right answer.
  • Do Be Careful– After completing the test, go back and double-check to make sure you have answered every question. Also check to make sure that you marked the answer that you meant to. If you run out of time before you get to do this, don’t worry – you probably already have this covered if you were following the other do’s and don’ts.

Help Alleviate Test Anxiety

Believe it or not, a certain amount of test anxiety is good; in its best form, this type of anxiety is called “level of concern,” and it can result in a child paying more attention and attending more closely to the task at hand. Test anxiety is not good, however, when it results in too much stress and perhaps even manifests itself in physical symptoms. Here are a few things you can do to help your child alleviate unhealthy levels of test anxiety:

  • Take the Mystery Out of Testing– Sometimes anxiety is caused by simply not knowing what to expect from the testing experience. Find out what type of exam it will be; will the answers be multiple choice, true and false, or short response? Check to see what the data will be used for, and reassure your child that these tests are not normally used in grading on the report card. Post the dates of the testing period prominently to reduce feelings of uncertainty.
  • Don’t Feed the Fear– Discuss test anxiety with your child, but be careful not to instill it. If you provide the opportunity for your child to express his concerns, he probably will. Then you will be able to address them specifically.
  • Deep Breathing– Encourage your child to take a few deep breaths when he is feeling anxious. Deep, focused breathing is an excellent stress reduction technique, and it provides a bonus: an oxygenated brain functions best.
  • Controllable Factors– Other things that might help on test day are as simple as not rushing in the morning, making sure transportation is stress-free, and dressing your child in comfortable clothing that is layered to allow for accommodating temperature fluctuations in the classroom.

Brain-Friendly Nutrition

Breakfast’s title as “the most important meal of the day” may not be that far off from reality. The reason behind many schools providing breakfast in their cafeterias is based on plenty of solid research that backs up the importance of breakfast each day. Children who eat breakfast perform better on tests involving math processes, matching figures, and vocabulary; they demonstrate improved attention and memory; they make fewer mistakes; and their reaction to frustration (an important trait when dealing with especially challenging material) is healthier. However, good nutrition does not stop at 8 a.m. When planning meals or providing snacks, knowing what foods enhance or hinder brain functions can help you make choices that maximize learning for your child.

  • Antioxidants– The brain uses about a fourth of the body’s oxygen intake. This means that the brain is also highly susceptible to oxidation or deterioration caused by free radicals, one of the byproducts of using oxygen. Antioxidants help protect cells by interfering with the damage caused by free radicals, and in turn help improve memory – a critical brain function when it comes to learning. (New research indicates that antioxidants’ protective qualities in the brain can also prevent Alzheimer’s disease as we age.) Antioxidant vitamins include C, E, and beta carotene (a specific type of vitamin A), but it is much more preferable to obtain these nutrients from food rather than by supplements. Kid-friendly foods that are good sources of antioxidants include blueberries, strawberries, oranges, red grapes, and red apples. Onions, broccoli, and spinach – while perhaps not as high on children’s dietary preferences lists – are also excellent sources.
  • B Vitamins– Foods that are rich in B vitamins can help preserve the fatty myelin sheath that covers nerves and is so critical to their correct performance. These vitamins – B-1, thiamin; B-6, pyridoxine; and B-12, cobolamin – also help with neurochemical reactions in the brain. High levels of B vitamins are found in nuts, seeds, dairy products, lean meat and poultry, seafood, eggs, whole grains, and broccoli.
  • Folic Acid– One of the brain-enhancing powerhouses in the B vitamin lineup is folic acid, also known as folate. Folic acid helps improve memory, and it also speeds up processing of information. Its impact on the brain is so significant that health experts recommend its use in treatment of chronic depression, and also urge expectant mothers to take in plenty to ensure healthy development for their baby. Excellent sources of dietary folic acid Romaine lettuce, spinach, orange juice, white beans, black-eyed peas, lentils, broccoli, spinach, and papaya.
  • Omega-3 Fatty Acids– More than two-thirds of the brain is composed of fat, so it requires a steady amount of dietary fat to function at its best. Some fats, however, are better than others, and omega-3 fatty acids – which have been proven to improve attention, focus, and concentration by more than 30 percent – appear to be among the most beneficial. A common source of omega-3 fatty acids is fish, like salmon, sardines, herring, and tuna. (Back in the 1950s, English children were routinely administered a daily dose of cod liver oil at school.) Vegetarian sources include leafy green vegetables, walnuts, and flaxseeds. (One study of more than 300 children ages six to nine found that flax seed oil taken in conjunction with vitamin C decreased symptoms like restlessness, inattention, and learning problems that are often attributed to Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder.) Some companies are feeding their chickens special flax-rich diets to produce eggs that are rich in DHA and other omega-3 fats
  • Chocolate– Your child might be relieved to know that not all brain-friendly foods are green. Chocolate contains chemicals that increase verbal and visual memory, enhance mood, and improve the amount of work one can do in one sitting.
  • Drink Plenty of Water– Our bodies need water to perform correctly, and the brain is no exception. Research shows that drinking water enhances mental coordination, improves concentration, and sharpens implementation of academic skills. Some nutritionists recommend one eight-ounce glass of water for every 25 pounds of body weight – so a 75-pound third-grader should be drinking about three glasses of water each day. Certain factors, such as exercise, stress, and physical condition, can impact our body’s water requirements. Infants should obtain their liquid in the form of breast milk or formula, and too much water can actually hurt a person of any age; so, when in doubt about how much water is right for your child, consult with your family healthcare provider.
  • Avoid Sugary Drinks– The occasional soda is fine for a treat, but allowing your child to rely on sugary drinks as a daily beverage mainstay can do more harm than good when it comes to school performance. A recent study evaluated subject test performance 80 minutes after ingestion of a sugar-packed beverage; subjects demonstrated impaired observation skills, decreased alertness and attention span, and slowed reaction times in mental processing.

Other Considerations

  • Ample Sleep– Research shows that sleep really does matter. Children ages five through fourteen operate best on 9 ½ to 10 hours of sleep each night. When children get under nine hours of sleep, they experience a decrease in the brain functions that support learning.
  • Volunteer– While most schools truly value every parent’s input and opinion, your say may carry more weight if you volunteer in a leadership position with your school’s site-based planning committee or school site council. Quite often these organizations are instrumental in discussing the school’s vision and mission statements, budgetary allocations, and other administrative concerns at a policy level. Many of these concerns – like hiring more teachers to decrease class size, or deciding whether to install a soda machine on campus – can directly impact your child’s performance.
  • Play with Your Child– Studies show that nurturing parents who spend time interacting with their child have a far more powerful impact than any number of commercial programs, books, tapes, or CDs. By familiarizing yourself with what your child is doing in school, you can even tie home activities into the curriculum, strengthening what he is learning at school.
  • Attendance – Your child is more likely to master the skills and concepts needed to do well on a test if he is in school every day.
  • Movement– Certain body movements enhance brain function. Activities that cause the extremities to cross over the midline of the body, like crawling and skipping, encourage integration of the right and left brain hemispheres; this has been directly linked to reading achievement. Some research has found that video games like Dance Dance Revolution, which integrate whole-body movement with rhythmic tapping, improve a variety of brain functions, including concentration, attention, math and reading fluency, and language processing.
  • Music Lessons– Students who take music lessons have stronger science reasoning, math, and verbal skills, and perform better on standardized tests. Certain types of music – like that of Mozart, which has resulted in this phenomenon being called “The Mozart Effect” – increase IQ by an average of eight points. This may be caused by music’s tendency to utilize so many portions of the brain simultaneously.

Perhaps it is significant that the factors that result in higher test scores are the same as those that help your child learn the most. By taking the focus off the test itself, and putting it back where it belongs – on the acquisition of knowledge – your child will have a good school experience… and that maximized learning is precisely what can result in higher test scores.

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