Testing Acumen or Testing the Limits?

In an era of illiterate high school graduates and dismal math scores, some education reformers are pressing for more stringent testing of students. But not all are jumping the bandwagon.

Other voices are complaining that the standardized exams already in place, such as the Scholastic Aptitude Test, are “high stake, high stress” — and not without cause. The collective scores from such tests help determine not only students' placement in colleges, but also teachers' pay and state involvement.

In the current debate, as Newsweek recently reported, politicians and parents tend to support stricter testing as an objective measure that plays well at the polls. Opponents call it an easy way out, and many educators are concerned about student stress, burnout, and neglect of classroom education in favor of test preparation.

Last February, recognizing the expectations from their community to score well in a state standardized test, 18 students at Whitney Young High School in Chicago deliberately failed and sent a letter to the principal. “We refuse to feed into this test-taking frenzy,” they wrote.

Emily Rocque, a learning specialist at The Catholic University of America's counseling center, thinks the situation has gotten out of hand and that too many students are too stressed. “You can test until the cows come home, but some very bright students just don't test well,” she said.

Rocque has a private practice coaching students to test well. “You can learn to play the game,” she said. “Obviously, thinking faculties, being well-read, being a good student, and so on, makes a big difference, but the ordinary student can increase her score by knowing the gimmicks of test-taking, such as the strategy of eliminating certain choices on multiple-choice exams.”

But Thomas Susanka, admissions director at Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, Calif., looks favorably on tests such as the SAT and ACT, or American College Test, in spite of their attendant stress.

“These tests help us work with the students,” he said. This small, Catholic liberal-arts college uses no textbooks but concentrates on the great books of Western civilization. “Students who do well on these tests do well in our program,” added Susanka. “The SAT is a fairly accurate measure of developed native intelligence and quickness of mind.”

While the debate rages, so does the testing. And, whether academic standards today are too demanding, too lenient or just about right, there are things parents and students can do to reduce test-taking anxiety.

According to psychologist John Parkhurst, director of the counseling center at Catholic University, special care should be taken so that test anxiety doesn't grow into debilitating fear, especially with students who have had negative experiences with exams in the past.

Despite the end-of-the-world feelings that panicked students often experience, test anxiety isn't a catastrophe, he assured students who come to the Academic Tutoring & Learning Assistance Service at the university.

“Anxiety and fear are closely related,” Parkhurst noted. “People can start to avoid feared situations and so temporarily relieve their anxiety. But they build up in their head a little more how bad it's going to be. The therapy for most anxieties is to help the person push through the anxiety and experience the reward of having succeeded in the task.

“We can learn how to learn. We know certain things about how the brain works and how to absorb and retrieve information more efficiently.”

Based on what he's seen work with students and on cognitive psychology, Parkhurst offered these recommendations:

Prepare effectively. Students in elementary and middle schools can be coached to quiz themselves on the study material. This rehearsal works on the same principle as riding a bike. You might be shaky at first, but the second or third time, you're likely be more sure of yourself. Older children and college students would do well to study in the same room where the test will be taken.

“Students pick up clues subliminally,” explained Parkhurst. “If you heard a story in one place, the next time you're in that place, you might remember that story. A student might remember a teacher's example. This is a state-dependent type of learning, partly dependent on environment.”

Use positive thinking. “Saying things such as ‘I'll never get this’ or ‘I hate math’ hinders both learning and test-taking,” said Parkhurst. “That's catastrophizing. We can get into the habit of thinking this way automatically. A student doesn't know the answer to a question and he thinks, ‘Not only am I going to miss this question, but I'm going to fail the test, too. Then I'll fail this course, won't get my degree, and I'll end up homeless and a shame to my parents.’ Every time I run through this scenario with a student who is suffering test anxiety, they identify with it.

“They're having an emotional reaction to being homeless. It's catastrophic thinking and emotional reasoning. They've got to pull back into rational reality. But for students who may have gotten a bad grade and felt ashamed, there is a tendency to negative distortion. Just as a person learns to think negatively, he can learn how to think positively. Negative thinking must be counteracted by an act of will. We can choose what kind of thinking to participate in.”

Accept imperfection. In most cases, 90% is still an “A.” In terms of anxiety, the extra effort to reach perfection may not be worth it. “Oftentimes a student can almost double her efforts to increase performance within a percentage range that's not going to matter,” said Parkhurst. “And you've got to ask, why? There's a point of diminishing returns. Perfection is an infinite concept. I've got clients who can be the highest achievers you've ever seen, yet they always feel that they're not good enough. They can't define what is ‘good enough.’ That pressure comes from societal values, parental values, messages from all sorts of things — the message that you're not good enough and that you've got to keep trying harder without ever saying how much harder is enough.”

Put a positive spin on the worst possible scenarios. “Missing a couple of answers might lower a grade, but it's still a passing grade,” Parkhurst observed. “Even flunking a class is not the end of the world. Classes can be retaken. Grades can be brought up. The psychological point is that when a student starts to focus on the worst-case scenario, then they start to react to it emotionally. Really, there's very little in life that we can't change or adjust. No situation is without a fix, to some degree. Our maximum expectations might not be met, but there are still alternatives available.

There's still hope. That type of thinking lessens the pressure. Test anxiety is understandable, but it's not necessary. A little bit of anxiety, however, can serve as a good motivator. There's a word in the English language for the opposite of distress or negative stress. It's ‘eustress’ or good stress.”

Una McManus writes from Columbia, Maryland.