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Reducing test anxiety for students and parents

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

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

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