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Reducing test anxiety for students and parents

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Former BYU offensive tackle Dallas Reynolds, currently with the Philadelphia Eagles, hails from collegiate football royalty and has rightfully earned his own accolades on and off the field. Reynolds’ NFL career has been a little slow to get moving — going from a consistent collegiate starter to a practice squad member and active roster man in wait is difficult.

Earlier this season, Reynolds was thrust into the NFL spotlight when a third-quarter injury to his teammate meant performing on a moment’s notice. After the game, Reynolds was interviewed and introduced as, “A story of perseverance and patience … (of) really working hard to get there.” Most telling of the brief interview was Reynolds’ response to the final question about how he planned to prepare as starting center for the following Sunday: “You've got to prepare. You've got to watch film. You've got to do what you can do in the meeting room.”

A mere seven days before the eyes of the League and a demanding city of fans would see what he was made of, Dallas Reynolds basically said he had to do his homework, stay focused, stay healthy and rely on his lifetime of training.

Test readiness is really no different.

If you are a high school student, or an adult who loves one, this time of year likely coincides with anxiety about assessments of all types, especially the SAT and ACT. America’s relationship with standardized testing is a strained one at best. For a nation obsessed with numbers and rankings, there is something about these assessments that make us uncomfortable. These concerns are typically expressed in three ways:

“I’m not a good test taker.”

This refrain is heard at college fairs everywhere. Troubling is the way in which students, parents and some educators find such comfort with this position, accepting it as a characteristic native to each student. It is as though we have decided students are born with a genetic marker that makes them a “good” or a “bad” test taker. The pre-destiny that we accept and preach to students works against them.

To be sure, no two students are alike. Test anxiety, learning differences and a number of other factors can and do influence testing outcomes. What may surprise you is that the percentage of college bound students who experience such differences to a level where it could impact their score is very small. The College Board and ACT administer tests under special accommodations to 2 and 4 percent of their test takers respectively. The number of test takers who believe they are in some way disserved by standardized assessments, however, is closer to about half. Why the gap?

The field of play is more competitive in a college entrance exam. Young people experience a shock to their self-image when the superlative reviews of their talents go from being measured within a community to that of a national and international pool of college-bound students. Selective college admission is an opt-in system of academic competition.

It is the responsibility of adults to help students see this context. Allow students to be humbled by the world of talent out there that is equally as special as they are. Use that awareness to instill an excitement in them about how much they have yet to accomplish and grow. Dallas Reynolds understands this and so should we.

“Teachers are forced to teach to the test.”

This statement evokes strong emotion and implies a watering down of curriculum or some other loss of academic content or enrichment. A challenge to such rhetoric is to ask how many high school curricula include no objective measure at all? Students are assessed in some form or other at various intervals. The problem seems to be that we do not appreciate being held to some external form of assessment.

More than three million students will complete high school in the United States next spring. Grade inflation and, therefore, grade compression make them nearly indistinguishable in a competitive process for college entrance. Imagine the subjectivity required of strangers to evaluate their merits for admission to a selective college without at least one level measure of relative performance.

“Standardized tests don’t measure creativity or motivation.”

While true, the above statement is a bit like arguing that an automobile is inferior to an airplane because it can’t fly. Anyone who uses test outcomes should know what a particular test can and cannot measure. Like any instrument, test results can be misused, though I find misuse most common among test critics forming circular arguments.

A test score does not and should not define you, but this cuts both ways. If the results give you some sense of where you stand nationally relative to your peers, this is helpful information even if you are not thrilled with the outcome. It says nothing about other characteristics that can determine success in college, career or life. On the flip side, if you did exceptionally well, get over yourself. Performing well on one instrument is a proof point of accomplishment. This, however, does not make you a good person, nor does it make you a better person than anyone else on the continuum. Once an admission committee looks past the numbers, and they will, what kind of person will they see?

Parents and educators take a strong interest in the complexity that makes their students beautifully human. We get angry and anxious for fear that one instrument fails to capture all of that complexity. But since the test makers neither make nor imply such a claim, why do we? Young people are not as fragile as we think and standardized tests by themselves are not strong enough to shatter their egos.

A different view of standardized testing

In athletics, medals are often awarded based on results measured in hundredths of a second and an entire season’s performance judged by a single game. As a nation, we celebrate these things. Seldom do we question that many athletes have sacrificed the entirety of their youth to qualify, compete and come home without a medal or a title. Still, we hold up their commitment and sacrifice as an example of the best in human potential despite physical differences too numerous to count and significant inequity in resources during their formative years.

It seems we want the luster of a selective college, but we want it to be selective for everyone else’s child. Encourage your student. Games that are too easy to play are quickly abandoned, so encourage them to take the challenge on the field. When we give students the tools and we tell them the rules, they will amaze us with what they can do.

John J. Brady spent time on The College Board working with SAT and AP programs, witnessing large-scale angst over standardized testing. He's the Chief Operating Officer of HigherNext, Inc., with 20 years in the education sector. JB@highernext.com