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Why children's worries should be everyone's worries

ASU team teaches local schools how to treat anxiety in at-risk children.
November 3, 2015

Professors working to prevent child mental disorders at ASU find that treating anxiety early can yield great results

Most people have had times in their life when they’ve been too nervous to raise their hand in class or ask a crush out on a date.

But not everybody knows what it’s like when those tendencies interfere with daily life, making simple things like going outside or speaking to strangers nearly impossible.

That’s what can happen to someone whose anxiety disorder goes untreated, according to Arizona State University associate professor of psychologyThe Psychology Department at ASU is part of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Armando Pina.

“Anxiety is a normal emotion that everyone experiences. But sometimes anxiety gets a little bit out of control. And sometimes it gets very out of control. And once it begins to get out of control or impair kids, then it begins to affect other areas of their lives,” he said.

Pina has been researching and implementing anxiety prevention strategies for children in grades three through five for the past five years with a program called REACH for Success.

“This is one of the most common problems in kids, period,” said Pina. “The prevalence of anxiety ranges from something like eight to 12 percent, and as high as 35 percent in adolescents.”

The program was developed as part of a grant funded by the National Institute of Mental Health.

Through REACH, Pina and fellow researchers work with local school districts to distribute materials and train teachers and school psychologists on how to use them to prevent and treat symptoms of anxiety in at-risk children.

The trial time for the program at each school is six weeks long and is comprised of six, 20 minute sessions in which students utilize materials such as board games or a mobile applicationPina’s team worked with associate professor Kevin Gary and assistant professor Ashish Amresh in ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering to develop the app. — which has just recently begun testing in schools — to learn tools necessary for coping with anxiety.

After the six week trial, children showed significant reductions in worries, improvements on emotion displays and expressions, and more confidence in coping with stressful situations at school.

group of people sitting on bench

Armando Pina (third from left) and his team at ASU's
Department of Psychology have worked to implement
the REACH for Success program at local schools to
help children cope with symptoms of anxiety.

Photo by Ryan Stoll

When they were evaluated a year later, the results were even better; the children showed greater reductions in anxiety (as rated by the child and their parent/s), even fewer body signs of anxiety (such as their heart beating fast, sweating, stomachaches) and better social skills. The children showing the most reductions in worries also began to perform better when taking tests.

The program, said Pina, is unlike any other before it.

“We now have a streamlined, simple, quick way to help kids that can be used in the schools. This program was designed for delivery in the schools by school staff because when we leave, we want them to still be able to do it,” he said. “And we have results that show that it works.”

It also addresses the issue of anxiety at a time that is most crucial.

“Third graders, fourth graders, fifth graders … that’s a developmental period where kids are changing really fast, and that’s really the best time (to intervene),” Pina said, because, “anxiety typically doesn’t go away by itself. And it interferes with kids’ abilities to make friends, to develop meaningful relationships with peers, to develop social skills.

“These kids, if you don’t help them, go on to develop depression and many of them become addicted to substances.”

The issue of children’s mental health in general is something Pina believes everyone should care about.

“Whether you have kids or not, kids are going to grow up and they’re going to move society forward," he said. "They’re going to be your doctors, they’re going to be your teachers; that’s the future. It’s very simple.”

With that in mind, Pina is looking forward to attending an upcoming fundraising event at Phoenix Children’s Hospital.

The event is being hosted by the Institute for Mental Health Research, with co-sponsorship from ASU’s Department of Psychology, and will feature a lecture by prominent child psychiatrist Judith Rapoport.

Rapoport, chief of the child psychiatry branch of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), will discuss important research advances that are improving the treatment of children with mental health disorders.

“It’s a good cause that supports faculty and researchers and families, not only that are linked to ASU but to the community in general,” said Pina. “It’s a good, solid community event.”

“An evening with Judith Rapoport” will take place from 6 to 8 p.m., Thursday, Nov. 5, at the Phoenix Children’s Hospital, Mel Cohen Conference Room in the Rosenberg Children’s Medical Plaza.

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ASU expert decries high-stakes testing of students

ASU expert sees split between policymakers, parents on high-stakes testing.
November 3, 2015

Professor sees split between politicians, parents

The debate over high-stakes testing for students was highlighted last month when President Barack Obama said that schools should have fewer, but better quality exams.

In Arizona, starting this year, students are no longer required to pass a standardized test to graduate from high school. But the state’s public schools still are required to test third-graders to prove reading proficiency, and a portion of teachers’ evaluations are tied to test results.

Audrey Amrein-Beardsley (pictured above), an expert on testing and an associate professor in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University, weighs in on the current debate about the effectiveness of testing students. She writes a blog about educational policy and testing called VAMboozled!

Question: Do you believe that students are being tested too much? Or is the amount of testing appropriate, but the emphasis — “high stakes” — out of whack?

Answer: I definitely believe students are being tested too much, especially given that students across the nation spend over four solid days on tests alone. These estimates do not include the time it takes to prepare for tests, taking away from valuable instruction time. In addition, “high-stakes” testing is not a good way to measure the quality of education in our schools. Research over the past 30 years shows that attaching test scores to academic progress never works, even though conceptually doing so makes sense. A good rule of thumb is that the farther the test gets away from the classroom-level (such as tests designed by entire statewide systems), the less useful the test becomes for its intended/informative purposes.

Q: What level of testing do you believe is appropriate for younger students? For high schoolers?

A: I do not believe large-scale standardized tests are appropriate for young children. There are many methodological issues that come into play when testing young children related to their ages and levels of maturity, the complexities that come along with defining and measuring young children’s development, learning and academic productivity, and other ethical concerns. As for high school students, research indicates it is OK to test these students. However, the most effective tests are developed near the school level instead of on a larger scale. These are the tests that are the most closely aligned with what has been taught and are capable of yielding data and information that is actionable. Large-scale standardized tests yield little to no timely or actionable data, especially at the high school level given most tests are not developed to measure specialized subject areas.

Q: Testing has increased as taxpayers have demanded more accountability — requiring teacher pay to be tied to test scores, for example. And requiring a third-grade test to determine reading proficiency or the student is held back. If testing is cut back, how will schools provide accountability to taxpayers?

A: Despite policymakers' increased focus on accountability, few taxpayers demand it. National survey data shows that the average taxpayer does not demand “more accountability.” Politicians and policymakers are largely the ones demanding accountability. In fact, there is a widening disparity between policymakers and taxpayers. The growth of the “opt-out” movement, where parents of hundreds of thousands of public school students choose to not take high-stakes standardized testing, highlights this disparity. While parents are concerned with frequent testing, policymakers responded with serious consequences and penalties to force parents and students to take these tests. The question to me is: How will the federal and state governments ensure that the accountability measures and models they put into place, to hold schools accountable to the taxpayers and for which taxpayers also pay millions, are actually working?

Q: The National Assessment of Education Progress scores were recently released. These are often considered to be among the “gold standard” of standardized test scores because of the rigorous and consistent testing methods used. Yet budget reductions have reduced the scope of these tests. Do you think these large-scale, nationwide tests are important? Do you think it’s important, or even relevant, to compare states to each other?

A: Testing experts across the nation respect the NAEP and admire it for its ability to monitor states’ educational programs. The NAEP is also respected because “high-stakes” have not been attached to the test and have not distorted the results. I also think it is important to compare states to one another. However, we do know a lot about these states without such tests and all tests in general, when we know other correlated factors (such as states’ political demographics, teacher-student ratios, average class size, teacher salaries, per-pupil funding). For anyone who thinks that any test-based measure is picking up or assessing only “student learning,” they are seriously wrong as test scores are so highly correlated with these and other variables. While this is unfortunate, it is true.

Q: Is there any research proving any negative effects of testing on students? Does it address the quantity or quality of the tests?

A: There is a lot of research on the negative effects of testing on students. In fact, it’s more worrisome that our nation continues to perpetuate such test-based accountability approaches to educational reform. Tests, while still extremely expensive, are still the cheapest educational reform measure to adopt and implement.

Q: Is testing actually a better reflection on a student’s socioeconomic status than their subject proficiency?

A: Unfortunately, this is also true. With a handful of variables about any student population, we can predict with about 80 percent accuracy what students’ test scores would be without students actually taking the tests.

Q: Some states, such as New York, require end-of-course tests for high school graduation. What are your thoughts on those tests? How about SATs/ACTs? Some universities are moving away from requiring them. Is that a good idea?

A: End-of-course tests are OK because they are more instructionally sensitive and better assess a student’s learning outcomes. However, if we add end-of-course tests, other tests need to give way. In addition, the SAT and the ACT do not predict student success in college as well as most people think. Common stats indicate that approximately 50 percent of the students who perform well on either test will perform well in college and the other 50 percent will not. I think that universities should get rid of the current college entrance exams and replace them with more quality (albeit likely less efficient) indicators for making college entrance decisions.