HomeHealth & BehaviorEmotional Well-Being

Ask the Experts

My Granddaughter Doesn't Test Well

By Debra Collins, Family therapist


I have a granddaughter in the fourth grade. Her parents help her every day with her homework. She can tell the correct answers and does quite well. At school when given a test on the same subjects, she will receive a C, a D or an F. We have talked to the teacher, but all she says is that they will keep her back in the fourth grade next year. We do not know what to do. We have had her tested and all is OK. So where do we go from here? Can you give advice?


I would like to address the issue of retention first. Retention, especially in the higher grades, is usually considered only after a variety of factors have been explored and weighed as either supportive or detrimental to a student's individual needs. Schools consider standardized test scores, behavioral and emotional issues, the results of psycho-educational tests, and overall school performance history; not just how well children do on their individual subject tests.

Your granddaughter's parents may want to have a meeting with the teacher, principal and special education team to determine your granddaughter's needs. The Department of Education in California calls this meeting a Student Success Team (SST) meeting, but many states have a similar procedure of early intervention to determine how best to help students. This would be very important to weigh all the options before retention occurs.

Poor classroom testing is usually considered "test anxiety," which is a form of performance anxiety and needs to be addressed as a separate issue. Test anxiety usually gets reinforced when the child has had a bad test experience and fears that this will happen again. The anxiety caused by repetitive fearful thoughts, and/ or by the physical reactions such as pounding heart, rapid breathing, sweating, shaking and nausea, can be very intense and makes concentration very difficult. A school counselor or child therapist can give your granddaughter tools to help lower and control her anxiety. Tools such as visualization, deep breathing and positive self-talk are useful for a variety of situations, not just testing, and can become a part of good self-care.

Family anxiety naturally increases when you see a loved one struggle. Sometimes in our effort to be helpful, we can inadvertently add more pressure, so collaboration with the counselor can be a wonderful way to manage everyone's stress.

Debra Collins is a licensed marriage and family therapist and has worked in both primary and middle schools as a school counselor. She gives workshops to teachers and students and offers parenting classes in the San Francisco Bay Area. To learn more, visit her website.

Advice from our experts is not a substitute for professional diagnosis or treatment from a health-care provider or learning expert familiar with your unique situation. We recommend consulting a qualified professional if you have concerns about your child's condition.

Comments from readers

"It sometimes helps to analyze which subject area the student is struggling the most and starting from there. I had a student who was performing below grade level in Reading, in Third Grade and doing borderline on other subjects. I started with Reading and found that she had missed phonetic/phonemic training in spelling. I encouraged her to read from a book she liked(which happened to be a comic), jotting down the words she was skipping or pronouncing wrongly. Then I gave her the spelling rules that she should know, and asked to read the pages over again. This way she became proficient in reading to the extent that in 4 months when she was tested for the Maine state tests, she scored in the 98th percentile. I tutored other subjects also but those were relatively easy. She improved rapidly, became an 'A' student and joined La Cross, Band and few other activities. Her potential was there. It was her confidence that needed to be boosted with the right teaching skill. CONFIDENCE is the key to success and many often that should be dealt with."
"I've got a 9 year old daughter (born premature) in Gr. 4 who also faces retention. The teacher told us that she is the smallest in class (all other classmates are 10yrs and older). I tried talking to her explaining to her that she will repeat gr. 4 next year and will benefit from it, but one can see that it is breaking her totally. She also told me that she want to pass and will do anything, her class work seem fine but her exams performance are very poor. She has also become stubborn since we spoke to her about it. "
"I have a son (4th grade) who struggles also. He's been tested at the school level, and they say he learns fine...but I think diffrently. I have having him professionally tested. I also refuse to allow him to be held back, because from all I've read it will destroy what liitle self esteem he has...and I hope once we get to the root of his challenge we can help him catch up. He has test anxiety...but I feel maturity will help with that. Schools have gone to far in my opinion using standardized tests that they teach kids to take to decide retention vs promotion..These are the same tests that studies have proven do not have anything to do with a childs actual knowledge. Don't let a state test make your decision."
"I have a son in the sixth grade facing retention. This will be his second time repeating a grade. On his last report card, he had all F's. He is now 13yrs old. I have done just about everything possible to help. He does have a problem talking and wanting to play in the class when he should be working on class tasks. He has also been tested to see if he learns at his grade level and the school says he has no learning disability. They said he is capable of learning on his grade level. I have thought about special education for him but fear it would only cause him shame and not want to learn. At this point, I just don't know what to do. Can u offer some advice in this situation."
"Part of the problem with the granddaughter who does not test well is that her parents are helping her with her homework every night. Apparently she doesn't feel confident to do the work on her own. That will make a big difference on testing. What I did this year (for my second grader) was set up a workstation in my daughter's bedroom. I will check her work for her when she is finished and show her which parts need to be corrected. Then she can choose to correct it or not. The responsibility needs to be on the child--not on the parent. Once she gains the self-confidence to do the work, there is a good chance the test scores will go up."