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Tips for confident test-taking

Published on: April 01, 2005

Everyone knows the simplified movie image of a person with anxiety. His eyes dart. He wipes sweat off his hands. But there can be just as much anxiety inside a calm-looking young woman who freezes with indecision over a test question. Her sweat is just as toxic, but remains on the inside.

College counselor Robert Dannenhold sees anxiety in his Seattle office, where he gives advice to high school students and their families about how to negotiate the college application process. Students today -- even those who are not planning on college -- are well aware of the high stakes involved in certain tests; most notably, the Washington Assessment of Student Learning or WASL, and the SAT or ACT, which are required by most colleges.

"When I tell a student that their SAT or ACT score is just one of a dozen things that the college will look at, and that they can tell the college they aren't good at testing, I can literally see stretched-tight cheek muscles relax," Dannenhold says. Students may have heard comments from peers that make them think certain scores will keep them out of college. Such information is usually wrong. For accurate information, one can call an individual college directly or read requirements in guidebooks.

"Some kids don't test well," Dannenhold explains. "I tell them that the admissions people are usually willing to look at other things." While test scores may help some colleges to winnow out applications, there are other ways to impress a college.

Parents may not realize the scope of fears that a teen hangs, like terrible Christmas ornaments, on a test. Who am I? Where do I fit into the larger society outside of high school? A student may place the weight of these identity issues onto a single test score, feeling that he will fit in to one or the other social group depending on his score. You can help your teen overcome these fears in a few different ways. For starters, educate yourself and your student about the tests. Take the mystery away. Every test was written for a certain purpose and has limitations. It is worth explaining, for example, that the SAT and ACT are not designed to measure intelligence.

Avoid offering too many empty reassurances, such as "You'll do great." According to a report on test anxiety by the New York Child Study Center, these blanket statements make anxious children worse, because they lose faith in the parent's opinion. Instead, they recommend helping a student plan to prepare for the exam.

Books about specific tests include practice questions. Some of them also include a CD-ROM to allow computer practice. Practice makes the test experience so familiar that it loses some sting. Another alternative is sending the student to group or private classes, from companies such as Kaplan Inc. and Princeton Review, which are designed for test preparation. In Dannenhold's opinion, the decision about whether to attend classes depends on whether a teen is motivated enough to practice without them or needs the structure to follow through.

One of the other delightful ways that parents can help their student is to openly discuss his or her strengths. In our day-to-day lives, we don't necessarily talk to our students about their learning styles or the ways they are perceived by others. Dannenhold makes parents fill out a questionnaire that asks: "What are some of the compliments that people give your child?" Now is the time to examine and share a childhood's worth of compliments, he says, and look for a pattern. In high-quality test-preparation classes, Dannenhold believes that many students benefit from finding out more about their own learning style. If they have made passable grades in traditional education, they may never have analyzed their own skills. They may not know whether they are very good at sequencing information, for example, or great at synthesizing. If they see how practicing in weak areas yields improvement, it may build their confidence.

One more tip for parents falls into a pragmatic realm. Be sure you take advantage of the different custom options for taking any exams. The SAT can be offered with extended time, for example. This requires some paperwork, but is an option worth considering if the time element creates extra anxiety for your child. In addition, it can make a difference which testing location you choose when registering. Some are physically less comfortable (no room to spread out, tiny desks) or more comfortable (big desks). Students who are very fidgety may need more space.

Educational psychologist Catherine Taylor, who does research on testing at the University of Washington, advises parents to spend time talking with their children about their opinions on everything from movies to video games. Ask them why they hold a particular view, and help them learn to back up their opinions with facts. Long conversations in which people trade details from a movie or a book prepare students to analyze and defend their positions. "The more kids are encouraged to develop their own ideas... and the better able they are to support their ideas with details, the better they will do on the WASL and in life beyond school," Taylor says.

Sally James is a Seattle freelance writer and mother of three.

"Helping your child to manage test anxiety," by Lori Evans, PhD.

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