Stress test: students speak their minds on the M-STEP

Don't even get them started on the SAT

Rockford High students Dimitra Colovos, left, a junior, and senior Mavis Johnson say students are over-tested and over-stressed

It’s become an annual ritual. Each fall the state releases results of the M-STEP, the state-required standardized test taken by Michigan students to gauge their proficiency in reading, math, social studies and science. And each fall educators, parents and pundits wring their hands over why students aren’t doing better.

Rather than go back to the same hand-wringing sources, we decided to ask the people most directly affected by these tests: the students who take them. How do they feel about these tests, and how could the tests be improved?

Adults, listen up: Maybe they can teach you something.

Related: If I have to be standardized, so do theyForest Hills Central High School Senior Reena Mathews reflects on her experience as a student taking standardized tests…

Kelloggsville Middle School

Gianna Turnbull

Gianna Turnbull, sixth-grader

Gianna dreams of being a baker someday. She recalls taking the M-STEP last year.

“I was anxious,” she said. “Some of the questions on the math test were confusing. I felt like I was gonna fail.”

Gianna said she took the M-STEP “very seriously. I sat at a desk where nobody could distract me.”

She wasn’t sure how the test will help students, but suspects it could help predict what kinds of things they could do in the future. Despite not enjoying the experience, Gianna said, “I think students should take the test so the state knows what the school’s teaching you.”

Jonathan Mubake

Jonathan Mubake, sixth-grader

When he sat for the M-STEP, “I was messed up!” Jonathan said. “My brain was somewhere else. …. It was like two computers (were) connected to me! I was trying to read (the page) as fast as I can, but it’s 10 paragraphs long!”

He said social studies was the hardest topic for him.

“I was exhausted, my head hurt, and my feet were wobbly,” he said, from his foot shaking out of nervousness. “I was ready to eat my food and go outside and go play. I was just ready for that, until I had to go back into the room and do the whole thing over again.

Jonathan would like five weeks’ notice to prepare for future standardized tests.

“I would prepare mentally. I would eat a perfect breakfast in the morning, get ready for school, make sure I had the right clothing on — not uncomfortable — so it’s not too tight for me to do my thing. I would go to sleep at … I would say 8, so I get enough rest.”

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Crestwood Middle School, Kentwood

Kamau Brame

Kamau Brame, seventh-grader

Kamau said M-STEP tests give students an idea of how they are doing in different subjects, but sometimes the process gets a bit complicated.

“I don’t particularly look forward to them, but I don’t mind doing them. They aren’t too tedious. The teachers know what you already know and what you need to go over more.”

Math is hardest for him. “I find some questions super-easy and some I have no idea what to start with. … Once you get a few questions right you start getting really hard ones, and you kind of stress out because you know you’re not getting those right.”

He sees testing as helpful for later grades, with the “big-test SAT and ACT and all that. It gets you used to having to prep for tests and taking them under pressure.” But he’d like to spend less time on setup. “I would change all the stuff you have to do before each test. … It’s like a long process signing in and all that.”

The atmosphere at school can be a bit tense during testing, he said. “Last year some other grades told us how bad it was. … The anticipation is the worst.”

Erna Kljaic-Dugalic

Erna Kljaic-Dugalic, seventh-grader

Erna said she mostly takes the testing in stride.

“I don’t mind the M-STEP, but I don’t get stressed out about it. I usually finish early because I don’t second-guess myself.”

But math can be a bit hard on her nerves, because it “starts easy and then gets harder and harder. It doesn’t really stress me out, but it makes me feel like I’m set up for failure. I also get really tired from looking at the screen.”

She looks at  test results as a way to think about what kind of job she’d be good at. “I do think it does help with your career because it shows your strengths.”

That said, she would definitely change the length.

“I understand that it’s long for a reason, but I would like it if it was a little bit shorter, maybe like two days, because sometimes it can take up a week for some kids to finish it. I’d like it to be shorter so we have more time for other things  at school.”

Alana Biley

Alana Biley, sixth-grader

Overall, M-STEP isn’t too bad, Alana says.

“I don’t mind it because it helps you to know what level you’re on and you won’t be on things that are too easy or too hard.”

However, it does make her nervous. “I’m just like, ‘Oh gosh!’ I get butterflies in my stomach like a week before.”

She’d feel better with more preparation.

“I would probably want a pre-test to get you ready for it.”

Kent City High School

Natalie Snyder

Natalie Snyder, ninth-grader

“I really think that it is a lot of testing in three days. It is too much for such a little bit of time. It would be better if they would break it up over the course of time.

“I do think that testing is really good for us, because it recaps what we go over in class. And it is a good idea to have it at the end of the year because it tests on what we learn through the year.

“I don’t think they should get rid of testing, because it makes us remember what we should know and makes us try to learn it.”

Brock Hearth

Brock Hearth, ninth-grader

“It would probably be better if they were shorter, so it wouldn’t take so long. It gets really boring and I would rather be doing regular school.

“I don’t think kids get much out of them, but testing might help us with taking tests — like the SAT — later on.”

Breanna Zerby, ninth-grader

Breanna Zerby

“I don’t think they make much difference, because the students don’t care about it at all. They aren’t graded, so most people I know treat them like they don’t matter and just quickly fill it out without paying much attention.

“They add a lot of unneeded stress since you have to sit there all day staring at a screen for hours and hours. It seems like we get all tired and stressed out for nothing.

“Another problem is about half the stuff on it we never covered. It is frustrating to sit there and try to answer questions about things you have never heard about.”

Rockford High School

Mavis Johnson

Mavis Johnson, senior

Mavis has taken standardized tests throughout her schooling, from the old MEAP tests through M-STEP and the SAT. Last year she said she did 13 hours of state-required testing in one week. That’s too much, she said.

“By the end of the week, you’re so done. Your brain is just fried. So they’re not getting accurate results, because you’re just so tired.”

Tests also cause her major stress, especially the SAT with college admissions possibly affected by it.

“When it actually comes down to the test and I’m sitting in the seat, I’m worried about, am I spending too much time on this one question? So I’m not really fully focused on the question itself as much as, if I get this one question wrong, it might be the determiner between two different schools.”

What would be a better system?

“Instead of one week that’s just awful, maybe we do five different days over the course of a whole year. Our brain won’t be so fried and we’ll be more invested in it.”

Dimitra Colovos

Dimitra Colovos, junior

Besides sharing Mavis’ test-nerves, Dimitra shares her confusion about what the purpose is of the M-STEP and the former MEAP. To them, it seems to be more about evaluating their schools and teachers than their own abilities.

“We would go take these big tests and it’s like, ‘OK kids, get your good sleep, tomorrow’s a full day of testing, we want you to do well,’” Dimitra said. “OK, why are we supposed to be motivated and pushed to succeed at them? For us it’s just like, I just sit in this chair all day and take these really long tests. You just get bored, and kids know this isn’t going in my grade book, this doesn’t decide what my GPA is. So why do I have to care?”

Although she sees some value in standardized testing for district evaluations and her own growth, she says too much emphasis is placed on it – including the SAT she will take later this year.

“I see how it affects kids — emotionally draining. Not that it’s not worthy or has a purpose, but from a kid’s point of view, it’s pretty overwhelming.”

Knapp Forest Elementary School, Forest Hills

Knapp Forest Elementary fourth-graders Lexie Austin and Jackson Roman share their insightful thoughts about the M-STEP, and testing in general
Charles Honey
Charles Honey is a freelance writer and former columnist for The Grand Rapids Press/ MLive.com. As a reporter for The Press from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today magazine, Religion News Service and the Aquinas College alumni magazine. Read Charles' full bio.

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