writings and Reflections

Girls and Standardized Tests
Tara Christie Kinsey

Just yesterday, I watched my daughter show a healthy aggressiveness on the soccer field. She was prepared. She hustled with determination. She repeatedly beat her opponent to the ball and made exciting plays happen on the field. She braved the high winds and cold weather. She was fierce. 

And yet, last night, her fearlessness had dissipated as she expressed worry about the CTPIV test (developed by the ERB) the following morning. “I’m really nervous. What happens if I don’t do well?” 

As head of school, I know the care with which our teachers have educated our girls about the purpose of the CTPIV test. I reminded my daughter, “The test is not just about you. It gives you practice on how to take these kinds of tests. It also allows the school to learn as well. This test is not a big deal; it’s a little deal.” 

Yet as a mother, I was struck by my daughter’s worry and tried to identify the origin of it. Was it because it’s the first time she’s ever taken this test “for real” and not just the practice tests? Is she hearing other girls expressing worry? Does she perceive this test to be a high-stakes test in spite of the school’s messages to the contrary?

With these questions occupying my thoughts, I revisited a favorite article of mine by Dr. Lisa Damour entitled “Girl vs. Test.” In the piece, Dr. Damour argues that the healthiest response any student can have to a test is the feeling of confidently attacking that test as a challenge--like the Disney character Mulan would. The Mulan-response is more difficult for girls to exercise, in large part because adults spend more time socializing girls to be gentle and kind (think Cinderella) and not enough time socializing girls “to compete with vigor, to take pleasure in showing what one can do, and to find a passion for beating an opponent or a test.” 

Every day, as I watch Hewitt girls rise to the challenge on the field, the court, and the stage, I think about how we can help them transfer that bravery and healthy aggressiveness to moments of academic assessment, including standardized tests. As our K-12 Dean of Teaching and Learning Dr. Maureen Burgess reminds us, “Standardized tests are a part of the academic experience from the CTPIV test in third grade all the way through to the SAT or ACT in junior and senior years. When our lower school students take the CTPIV, those tests help us assess how well we are meeting learning goals relative to a national benchmark, and they give our students opportunities to build test-taking muscles they will need later on in their academic journey.”

When our daughters take standardized tests, we can teach them how to reframe their stress and feel powerful and brave. We want them to understand that it’s OK to be nervous or even scared before they go into the test, but, like Mulan, they are prepared, they are fierce, and they are going to go in there and show that test what they can do. Are there questions our daughters won’t know how to answer? Of course. But is that going to stop them? No. They will tackle the next question with more focus and determination, just as they do on the field and stage. With this knowledge, it is my hope that our girls will approach tests like the CTPIV with a steady confidence, perhaps still nervous, but ready to rise to the challenge that lays before them.

Together let us all--Hewitt faculty, parents, and guardians--redouble our efforts to identify more and better ways to help our girls and young women access their “inner Mulan” in the classroom and especially in moments when they are being tested.

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