“My son is great at school, always works hard, and his grade point average is really strong.”
Then, there’s a pause.
“He just has testing anxiety and doesn’t test well.”
This conversation with a prospective family last week is unfortunately very common, and we get asked a lot about how an out-of-balance academic profile (high gpa, low testing) can be addressed in the admissions process. The good news is two-fold: 1) with the proliferation of test optional policies, the SAT/ACT is no longer the admissions-equivalent of the Hogwarts sorting hat, essentially telling students where they can go to college, and 2) we know significantly more about testing anxiety than we ever have before and work with our students on how to prepare for those tests. Since we have already addressed test-optional policies in this space before, let’s discuss how to help your test anxious teen.
What is and what is not testing anxiety
A low score on a test does not mean your student is test anxious. Testing anxiety, which affects anywhere between 15-25% of American high school students, is a condition in which students experience debilitating psychological stress in response to an upcoming exam - to the extent that they cannot engage in reasonable academic preparation (i.e., study). While the behavioral symptoms of test anxiety are agitation, insecurity, and feelings of hopelessness, the student may also experience physiological responses, like trembling, sweating, and nausea.
This is not the same as “not testing well” which can be attributed to all kinds of conditions, such as a mismatch in learning styles of the student to the instructor, ill-preparation for the exam, or simply having a bad day.
If your student is experiencing the symptoms of testing anxiety, and it is significantly impacting their academic achievement, please work with your student’s pediatrician or physician to be connected with an educational psychologist or learning specialist.
If your student is still experiencing a high degree of stress surrounding an upcoming exam (though not at the level of shutting down as would be the case with the condition of testing anxiety) there are several things we recommend to students and families in advance of their ACT/SAT exams. Think of academic-related stress as being propped up by three legs of a stool: 1) students do not feel prepared for a task, 2) that task is believed to be high stakes (real or not), and 3) if they do not perform well on that task, they will face social consequences.
Practice on Content
Let’s start on the first leg: the student is experiencing stress because they do not feel prepared for the exam. It is critical that your student understand an important truth about the SAT and ACT: they are achievement exams, not IQ tests. They are not measuring innate traits with which a student is born. They are measuring academic skills that the student has been introduced to over the entirety of their academic career. In many cases, a student is struggling with a section of the test because that specific set of skills simply didn’t “take” the first time they experienced them. We hear stories all the time about a certain geometry teacher who teaches in a very unique way, or, and not to get in your kiddo’s kitchen here, maybe they didn’t pay attention the first time through biology. However they got to this point, the key thing for your student is to prepare using customized practice material, getting reacquainted with the academic skills that have been giving them trouble, rather than wasting their time studying material they already have mastered.
Once you have that prep material in their hands, they have to practice it like any other skill. We have student-athletes, -dancers, -musicians, -artists, and -gamers working with us and the message is the same: to master a skill you have to put in the time to practice it. Repetition is absolutely key.
The exam is a part of a journey
One of the biggest issues I have with traditional schooling is that the exam (either an end of course exam, or an ACT/SAT) is treated as a motivational anchor. “This will be on the test” is synonymous with “you better take this seriously or [insert undesired social outcome].” We have heard of teachers threatening students with “not being able to go to college” or if you do not score well on the ACT/SAT [leans forward for emphasis], “you won’t get into a good college.” None of this is true of course. There are colleges all across the country who can accommodate students with a range of test scores or no test scores at all. We do our students a disservice when we talk about tests like they are culminating “moments of truth,” rather than as one point of measurement in a broader educational journey. In the array of your student’s education, this test is but one point in the scatterplot. Sure, the results of that exam inform the student’s path forward, but it does not determine it. There’s a huge difference in the resulting mindset for the student: one treats the exam as a high stakes knife's edge, and the other as one of many on-going evaluation of effort, skills, and mindset.
The “Wall and Achievement”
In each of the public high schools in my county, there is a “Wall of Achievement” with the names of all of the students who scored in certain ranges on the ACT. Let’s set aside the fact that this is potentially against student privacy laws and understand that it sends a clear message to would-be test takers, “Your test score matters and everyone will know how you did.” Educationally, this is exactly the wrong message.
I bet you didn’t know that the author William Faulkner reportedly scored an 870 on his SAT or that the 36th President of the United States, Lyndon B. Johnson, achieved a 26 on his ACT. Our history books and libraries are full of thinkers, inventors, artists, and creators who did not achieve an exam score worthy of a “wall of achievement.” Let us assure our young people that academic achievement is not a trophy to be hung on a wall, but rather it is an invitation to further work.
Testing, and the stress it can generate, is in itself not a negative thing. Regularly testing one’s master of a skill is inherent to a cycle of improvement, provided we have the proper mindset and support. By working toward, and sometimes struggling with, mastery in a subject, we sharpen our skills which opens doors to future challenges, all the while demonstrating to ourselves that we are the kind of people who can master things in the first place.
Not working with us yet? Feeling stressed by the college search process? Let's chat.