Let’s look beyond test scores

The state is concerned that test scores continue to dip. There are two important issues that need to be voiced and considered that may explain some of the downward spiral.

First, too many Alaska children suffer from adverse childhood experiences. These are stressful, traumatic childhood events such as witnessing domestic violence, family substance abuse disorders and all forms of abuse and neglect. All this can result in post-traumatic stress disorder, conduct disorders and learning, attention and memory difficulties.

Now add these numbers: According to Alaska Office of Children’s Services, there were 7,891 Protective Service Reports from April 2018 to March 2019. Fourteen percent of Alaska kids live below the poverty line, and 20% live in households without adequate food or energy sources. Are you tired of reading these statistics? Had a long, hard day or a family crisis? Well, just imagine taking a high-stakes math or reading comprehension test right now. Will it measure your true potential or worth?

What would your test scores be if you’re hungry, your dad’s in jail or kids tease that you smell? You are too embarrassed to say you didn’t take a shower because the dishes are overflowing in the bathtub due to a broken sink. And we don’t know the half of the sexual, physical and emotional abuse that kids endure. There are so many heartbreaking stories, more than you can imagine. Ask any teacher. They provide emotional support (and often food) every day while delivering academic lessons. They could use more backup.

It is past time to honestly recognize the shameful elephant in the room. Too many children are in a state of emergency that yet another reading curriculum will not remedy. One glaring variable in the dip in testing is trauma trumping success. Brain science is very clear on this. When the amygdala is in fight, flight or freeze mode, messages do not reach the prefrontal cortex and reasoning can not take place. Trauma-informed counseling and social emotional learning (SEL) are critical to academic success, not to mention survival.

That leads us to the second issue to consider. Robust research from the Collaborative for Academic Social Emotional Learning indicates that students who receive high-quality SEL instruction have achievement scores on average 11% higher than students who do not. Every dollar spent on SEL programs has an $11 dollar return on investment. School districts nationwide that incorporate SEL into their school culture enjoy reduction in conflicts and improved test scores. Ask you child’s principal if they utilize a school-wide SEL approach.

So look beneath the test scores. We must support the children we have. Not the ones we used to have, should have or wish we had. Meet our students where they are with what they really need, and all the rest comes from there.

Susan Conlin M.Ed., taught social emotional learning at Russian Jack Elementary school for many years and co-authored two SEL books for children published by Parenting Press.

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