Reducing test anxiety for students and parents

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 28 2012 2:05 p.m. MST

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.

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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.

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