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What Your Tester Might Do Despite Herself

December 6, 2016


“Whenever I hear someone flip the page, I kinda panic.  I worry that I am behind, and that’s when I start rushing.”



hear this sentiment frequently on the ACT, SAT, and, especially, the SSAT.  The angst is understandable.  It’s just not helpful.  Let’s look at why kids rush, why it’s not helpful, and what we can do to help.


First, under stress, most people speed up.  Nervous as a public speaker? You’ll likely sound like you’re reading the fine print at the end of a TV commercial. Notice that you get nervous talking someone you have a crush on?  Chances are he or she notices, too.  Stress involves a surge of adrenaline and cortisol that speeds up respiration and pulse, increases blood pressure, and creates a sense of urgency.  But why the angst from others going faster?  Partly, it’s born out of a sense that other are getting ahead, or that we are falling behind, which is stressful. More so, kids have been conditioned by school to fear not finishing.  Leave 20% of test blank?  Good luck earning an A.  And, with even a single error, kiss that B goodbye.  You are now treading in C territory.  Yikes! 

But standardized tests are not school tests.  They are graded on their own curves. On an ACT, for example, 90% correct can be a score of 33, which is 99th percentile.  If a student could answer 85% of the test correctly and flat out guess on the last 15%, she should score 31, 96th percentile.  An 8th grade girl answering 80% correctly on the SSAT (leaving the other 20% blank) would have the following:

Verbal 781 98th percentile

Math 764 94th percentile

Reading 725 94th percentile

Now, of course, students almost never have 100% accuracy on the questions they approach and skip every other question.  But, the principles remain valid:

           1. Answering less than all the questions does not spell doom. So, panicking over unanswered questions is not called for.

          2. It is, in fact, much easier to accurately answer what you know how to do if you don’t rush to answer everything.

What to do? 

So, if that logic is a well and good point most every test-prep tutor makes, why do kids still rush and how can we help? 

When stressed, it is not the logical part of our brains at work. It is the amygdala, the “threat detector,” rather than “the professor” that is in charge.  How do we help kids stay calmer so the thinking part of their brains are online and working? Lots of ways. One thing I do to lower the perceived threat is to help kids re-frame their thinking. 

 If the kid beside you is going way faster, it may well be that she is a genius, you are a dullard, and you should just start practicing “Fries with that, sir?”  But. It is possible there is another explanation.  Years ago, I had a colleague approach me about her student.  The girl was an 8th grader at an all-girls school and her parents wanted her to apply out to “the best” private school in DC and to do test prep for the SSAT to do so.  So, they hired my colleague for weekly test prep and practice tests.  Sounded like a plan.  Just one problem: the girl didn’t want to leave.  She liked her school and her friends, had no interest in switching schools, and certainly did NOT want to take the SSAT or SSAT prep.  “I don’t want to work with a stupid tutor!”

“But, Sweetheart, if you do well enough on the SSAT, you can go to…”

Uh-oh.  That was an important “if.”  In her practice test, she filled in answers haphazardly, put her head down on her desk, and waited for the proctor to end the section. To those near her, panic: “She must be a genius! I must be going too slowly.” 


 I tell this story to every kid I have taking the SSAT.  Why? Another possible explanation of why you may be slower than other test-takers.  Run your own race.  Know that slow-and-steady is actually better than racing.  Pace yourself to answer correctly what you know how to do.  Know that a little too slow is better than a little too fast.  For, in the end, the test is not a race. And, racing minds don’t do their best work.

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