This is Only a Test

In Monopoly, if you don't pass go, you don't collect $200. In life -- the one we live, not the board game people used to play -- if you don't pass certain tests, you don't collect a lot of things. Entrance to the next grade. A driver's license. Certain jobs. Board certification. Admission to the best college, or to any college. In some states, schools with low standardized test scores don't collect state money.St. Louis University basketball player Justin Tatum couldn't collect NCAA eligibility. His score on the ACT didn't meet the criterion set by the athletic association, which meant no hoops scholarship for Tatum. In order to get a second consideration, he had himself evaluated by a psychologist, who found no learning disabilities, so he had himself evaluated by a different psychologist, who diagnosed an anxiety disorder related to test-taking. This allowed him to take a nonstandard, untimed version of the test, but the NCAA wasn't buying it, and a federal court agreed. For the court, his last-minute scrambling for accommodations looked a little too much like last-minute scrambling for accommodations.Which doesn't mean that his test anxiety isn't as real as other people's claustrophobia, fear of heights or airplane anxiety. There's no question that test anxiety debilitates certain people.We're talking about more than your average jitters. Although sweaty palms and a racing heartbeat aren't exactly pleasant, normal fear responses to pressure actually help us along, providing sharpened reactions and a burst of adrenaline. This can be useful in all sorts of situations, from killing prey on the veldt to remembering the formula for the angles of an isosceles triangle. For some, though, excessive anxiety responses overwhelm the task at hand. A few hundred students each year who have been diagnosed with anxiety disorders take the ACT and SAT tests under special conditions.Emotions have different levels, of course. Fear comes in little jolts, when you see a wasp, to serious flight responses, when you're confronted with a growling dog. With anxiety disorders, the problem is one of proportion. Whereas realistic threat with a clearly identifiable cause makes us tremble with fear, anxiety results from ambiguous or pervasive causes. Sufferers feel out of control, unable to define and get rid of the problem. Even more debilitating than anxiety is phobia, an exaggerated fear that's well out of proportion to the actual threat. The word comes from the Greek god Phobos, whom warriors called on to frighten their enemies.Phobos should've made those soldiers take standardized tests, with all those empty, taunting ovals swimming across the powder-blue answer sheets. When asked about the effects of test anxiety, Seppy Basili, executive director of precollege programs at Kaplan Educational Programs, immediately tells of a student he once knew who scored in the top 25 percentile on his SAT. While respectable, that score was nothing like the student's eventual college performance: He transferred to Johns Hopkins, an elite university, and racked up a stellar 3.95 GPA. Later diagnosis uncovered an anxiety disorder associated with test-taking that made him freeze up during standardized tests.Basili's anecdote is not tragic or earth-shattering, but it shows the real discrepancy between SATs and college performance when test-taking invokes relentless fear. "Test anxiety is a phenomenon that is recognized, and it is severe for some people," says Basili. But for the companies that make and administer standardized tests, such as Educational Testing Services, "The whole goal is to make these exams consistent," notes Basili, and extended time and other special circumstances bring the validity of the tests into question. The impulse behind standardized tests is democratic, but sometimes it's hard to define equality.A Test in the Shape of a HawkThere's no simple answer to the question of what causes anxiety disorders. Thinking about a frightening event and its consequences creates physiological responses in our autonomic nervous system. Heart rate increases, blood sugar is released, we sweat bullets. This flows from pure animal instinct; scientists have observed what's called the Hawk Effect, where young ducks and geese who were raised in isolation responded with fear when they saw a hawklike image soaring overhead.Ducks fear physical harm, and we do, too, but humans have the added worry of emotional harm. Test anxiety is a version of performance anxiety; we become terribly self-conscious, aware of ourselves as being under the gaze of others.Robert Carney, professor of psychiatry at Washington University's medical school, is quick to emphasize, "What causes phobias is not well understood." Researchers tend to think the reaction is progressive, the sum of multiple experiences associated with anxiety or dread. One thing's for sure: "If you're concerned about failure," says Carney, and you expect this failure to happen in your future, "you can basically increase the likelihood that that will happen." Another thing that's clear, says Carney: "Anxiety is very much dependent on feeling out of control."John Dages, a licensed psychologist and assistant director of St. Louis University's Health and Counseling Center, notes, "One of the hallmark features (of panic) is this overwhelming sense of doom and despair." People suffering from anxiety disorders project doom into the future, as opposed to people suffering from depression, whose despair is rooted in the past. When looking for the cause of someone's failure identity, Dages explains, "Sometimes you want to look at a person's history." There's no guarantee, though, that a clear causal event will be uncovered. The root causes of anxiety disorders, like the elements in a situation that trigger the panic, are amorphous. One kind of situation, such as a Saturday-morning roomful of unfamiliar students quietly answering timed questions, may be just the right combination for disaster.Multiple-Choice DemocracyAccording to one estimate, between 140 million and 400 million American students at all grade levels each year are reaching for No. 2 pencils to take standardized tests. This glut of tests arose from a 19th-century impulse toward fairness. In 1845 Horace Mann, a leading educational reformer, proposed the radical idea of a "common school." He asked the Boston School Committee to administer a written exam to the city's students in place of oral exams, which, he considered, favored the polished children of the well-to-do. He wanted objective information, and he got it: The written exams exposed wide gaps in students' knowledge. Parents and educators took quick notice. As a result, Mann can also probably be credited with an increase in the use of the phrase, "Will this be on the test?"With booming enrollments, masses of immigrants and the cult of industrial efficiency, standardized tests blossomed in the period from 1880-1920. Educators wanted democratic schools, and short-answer and multiple-choice tests were viewed as cost-efficient and objective ways to measure the results. Adding to the reputation of standardized tests, the Army during World War I administered an intelligence test called the Alpha test to more than 1.7 million soldiers; the results seemed to be a resounding success when it came to placing recruits in the proper ranks, and standardized tests flourished.In 1929 the University of Iowa created the first statewide tests, the Iowa Test of Basic Skills and the Iowa Test of Educational Development. In the 1950s E.F. Lindquist, the Iowa program's director, developed an electronic scoring machine. The bubbles were born.As tests multiplied like rabbits, though, so did their critics. Standardized tests present a student's performance only in comparison to other students, which says little about the complete range of a student's skills and knowledge. Because the test questions are kept secret and the score results don't indicate which questions a student answered correctly, there's no way of knowing students' weaknesses, and kids can't learn from their mistakes. Indeed, because someone need only pick an answer and not construct it, it's impossible to know whether that person really has the knowledge the question was designed to tap.At The Free-Throw LinePaul Cohen, on the phone from the New York offices of the Princeton Review, feels the need to be emphatic: "The tests are really, really poor predictors" of college performance, he says. For every kind of standardized test, from the LSAT on down to the ACT, "You can pretty much predict how an average student will do by looking at demographics and economic background." For those who can pay the cost of the sessions, places like the Princeton Review and Kaplan Educational Programs conduct classes on content review and test-taking strategies, including when to guess and in what order to tackle the problems.Cohen draws an extended analogy between a standardized test and a free throw in a basketball game: "It measures one very small skill set among many, done in a frozen time." A basketball player who can stand in front of 10,000 fans and coolly swish one from the line might shake from panic at the prospect of deciding if the answer is "none of the above." What to do? The test companies say the best way to prepare is to take more challenging courses, notes Cohen. "It's like saying the best way to improve your free throws is to play against better opponents, playing a game against Michael Jordan." Ridiculous, he observes. The best way to get better is -- surprise! -- to practice free throws. Students who take test-prep classes regularly improve their scores by more than 100 points. "We don't make students smarter," says Cohen bluntly.Basili, of Kaplan, notes that there's some correlation between SAT scores and college grades, but a higher correlation between high-school grades and college grades. Granting this, do the standardized tests still measure a useful skill? Yes, he says. "What these tests are really measuring is critical thinking, which is solving problems in a way that is efficient and leads to quick understanding."Multiple ChoicesCritics of standardized tests point out that learning even elementary tasks involves complex thinking and reasoning, and that the most skilled readers, mathematicians, scientists and so forth approach their tasks differently than beginners do: They remain aware of their own thinking process. For example, readers should be constantly "making meaning" of a passage, processing clauses and sentences, thinking about what comes next, fitting the information into background knowledge. Most important, for true understanding to occur a person must be able to explain something -- to generate analogies and present evidence.Standardized tests, though, are based on the idea that we can break down a skill such as reading into component parts, such as "reading comprehension," and measure ability on each part. The contextless tasks of locating a spelling error or identifying parts of speech, although important to know, do not measure good writing.The theory of "multiple intelligences," pioneered by Howard Gardner, offers one way to think about an alternative to quantitative assessment. Gardner's 1983 book Frames of Mind argues that there are several kinds of intelligences, including linguistic, logical-mathematical and spatial. Measuring these requires the full range of information you get from performance-based assessments, projects and portfolios.Nonetheless, performance-based assessments can't simply replace standardized tests, notes Simon Kim, professor of educational psychology at UM-St. Louis. Kim teaches quantitative courses such as research methods but also conducts workshops to train elementary and middle-school teachers on performance-based assessment. The quantitative tests and the qualitative performances aren't interchangeable: "They answer different questions," explains Kim. "The main purpose of SAT tests is to find out if one student is better or worse than a group of people with similar characteristics," he says. One school district may be more rigorous than another, after all. "Standardized tests are the best thing there is if you want to compare kids in another school district, another state, another country." For college-admission policies, "You have to include standardized tests."Because of the thousands of college applications, long-term projects aren't realistic for admissions. But when asked about the possibility of achieving a more level playing field, Kaplan's Basili answers, "In college admissions there certainly is a way." Although high schools use different formulas to determine credit, ranking and so forth -- so that "it's difficult to figure out the competitiveness of schools," Basili admits -- there's a movement toward universal transcripts, which would make the numbers more comparable across schools. Some universities even publicize their assessments of the competitiveness of high schools, allowing everyone to know how they weigh one GPA against another. Admissions officers at the local level need to evaluate all aspects of an application, conducting interviews, building expertise and understanding of a student's file, and using SAT scores as a way to explain aberrations."You need to look at multiple sources," agrees Kim. Letters of recommendation and writing samples need to be evaluated carefully, and portfolios are helpful.High AnxietyThere doesn't seem to be much hope for an SAT-free future for people suffering from test anxiety. "Academic anxiety can be just as debilitating as any social anxiety," says Cara Garcia, a professor at Pepperdine University's Graduate School of Education and Psychology whose research centers on test anxiety, math anxiety, writer's block and other manifestations of academic anxiety. "People will redirect the course of their entire lives, or try to confront (the anxiety), which may or may not work."A basketball player who wants to be on a college team, however, can't redirect his way around the test-score requirement for NCAA eligibility. But anxiety sufferers aren't hopelessly condemned to their panic. Dages, the SLU counselor, says that for people debilitated by anxiety the university offers individual assessment and counseling, as well as testing to rule out learning disabilities. "Very often people who have anxiety around tests will have anxiety around other performance-related activities," such as giving speeches, says Dages. In such cases psycho-education often helps. "You help them understand what it is, who is affected, what causes it. People get more settled when they realize it's common."Counselors also offer practice activities such as test-taking skills, immersion in the situation and role-playing. Medication such as beta blockers is an option, though "that's not the first route we go," explains Dages. Wash. U.'s Carney emphasizes that test anxiety is an "anticipatory anxiety," so demystifying the experience will not just lessen the effects of the anxiety; "you can actually lessen the anxiety." The point is to change a person's expectations and give them a sense of mastery over the situation.This is, in effect, what commercial places like the Princeton Review try to do: "We disabuse the student of the notion that this (test) is about intelligence," explains Cohen. Then they make the test less intimidating by, for example, personalizing the test writer: Joe, some guy in Iowa, sat down and wrote this question, and this is what Joe was probably thinking. Cohen says the prep classes try to make the students understand that a testing company "isn't some evil empire, although they may act like it." Then, there's also plenty of practice tests. A lot of anxiety can be lessened, notes Cohen, in "the act of filling in bubbles with a No. 2 pencil."


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