I met with her the first time last Sunday a week before the SAT, mother looking on, and the conversation went something like this.
“I want to specialize in one test. Which one should I take?”
“Yeah, okay, back up a bit. You took SAT test prep over the summer, right?”
“Yeah, but I knew everything they told me. It didn’t help.”
“What’s your course load?” (she goes to a 50% Asian school.)
” I’m taking a history honors class now, but it’s my first. Precalc for math.”
“And your GPA? What colleges are you considering? ”
Shrug. “3.8 or so. Colleges, I have no idea. But what I want to know is, should I specialize in the ACT or the SAT? And should I take the old one or the new one?”
“Do you have a target SAT score?”
“2000. What’s the equivalent in ACT? But I really think I should take the old SAT and be done. ”
“Your last practice test was a 1400.” She winced. “Even if all colleges take the old SAT for 2016 admissions–something I find unlikely despite assurances to the contrary–I’m not sure how you can find the time to focus on improvement between now and January, the last sitting of the old test. Besides, why the hurry?”
She waved dismissively. “I want to be done with all this. I hate the SAT. Maybe I should specialize in the ACT. I don’t want to learn the new SAT.”
“Yeah, we’re back to this whole ‘pick a test’ thing. Let’s discuss something touchier. Are you frustrated by the difference between your school performance and your test performance?”
She got very still. “Yes.”
“When I see an academic profile significantly higher than a test score, the student usually mentions it first. I’ve met many kids, a lot of them girls, with a profile like yours. They’ll tell me that they really just want to improve, to get their score into a respectable range, and that they haven’t had good luck with test prep so far. I didn’t hear any of that from you. Instead it’s ‘gotta pick a test’, need a 2000′ despite no college plans, without any acknowledgment of what must be a very disappointing practice history.”
I said all this as delicately as possible, but she was already surreptitiously wiping away tears.
” I don’t see your mom behind this. You’re causing your own pressure but are also very resistant to making more effort or exploring options.”
She started nodding before I finished, and her mom handed her a Kleenex. “I just think I’m wasting my time.”
“So let’s start there. Do you have trouble with school tests? No? How about your state tests? So it’s not a general testing problem, just big standardized tests. Is it nerves?”
She laughed, sadly. “No. My big problem is motivation.”
I snorfed involuntarily, and she looked up in shock. “Sorry. I’m not at all laughing at you. Just the idea that the kid I see in front of me barking orders like an executive suffers from motivation problems.”
The mother demurred here. “Well, her GPA is only a 3.8.”
“Forgive me, but you’re Chinese and prone to distortion on this point.” They’re American enough to laugh. ” I see an articulate, bright, driven girl who appears to have an intellect that I would put conservatively three or four hundred points above this practice score. You are using that intellect in school. I don’t see an obvious motivation issue.”
“No, not in school. Not studying. When I’m testing–you know, like the practice tests? I lose all motivation.”
Well, hey now.
“Tell me if any of this is familiar: The test begins and you’re working away, feeling good. Then you run into a problem that you don’t know how to solve and suddenly, as you try to figure the problem out, everything seems pointless. You give up, make a guess, go on to the next problem. Except now you aren’t sure what to do with this one, either. Suddenly, nothing matters. You simply stop caring. I see by your face that I’m not off-base.”
“How did you know?”
“I’ve seen it before. I describe it as a sort of stress reaction.1”
” I’m not nervous at all.”
” You should be so lucky. Jitters don’t usually affect performance. You get bored by stress. What happens, best I can tell after hearing many students describe the feeling, is that your brain shuts down to avoid feeling stress.”
My first case was a short, slight blond boy back before the SAT changes, so before 2005. I was going through his practice test explaining the missed problems, and he’d finish my sentences. That is, he knew how to do many of the problems he’d gotten incorrect on the test.
So why the high error count, I asked.
It was after I got bored, he replied. Once the boredom hit, he’d start to randomly bubble. I was aghast. He may as well have told me he sucked dead chickens’ eyeballs for candy, so incomprehensible was his behavior.
“So what you have to start doing, have to understand, is that you are a testing prima donna.”
“A prima donna?”
“You know how movie stars always order off-menu? Because they’re just too special for the pre-arranged menu that the rest of us use. Or the ballerinas or opera stars who simply refuse to be rushed, because they are artists. Or rock stars, the kind who make huge demands for their hotel rooms sometimes—Van Halen famously demanded brown M&Ms be removed from the candy bowl (yes, I know they had another reason, but her parents are never going to let her listen to Van Halen, so I’m safe). You need to be a prima donna rock star tester.”
“Take two SAT sections daily, from the blue book. Use deadly serious test conditions. No music. No interruptions. No stopping the clock. No laying on the floor or on your bed. Sit at a table, door shut, start the timer.”
“That’s not even an hour.”
“And when the timer starts, I want you to take two minutes, at least, to go through the test and cherrypick. Circle the problems you’ll deign to do.”
“In math, pick and choose your problems. Circle the good ones. ‘This one, I shall do. This one, pah!’ Spit upon it. If you don’t instantly vibe to the question, avert your eyes and scratch an X next to that problem, which clearly must be for peasants and other little people. Can you do that?”
She giggled. “Really? What about reading?”
” Skip anything with long paragraphs that looks less desirable than root canal. You like sentence completions?”
“Do them first, then evaluate each reading passage to determine whether or not Her Majesty–that’s you–is interested. Which part of the writing section do you like best, the paragraph at the end?”
“How do you know this?”
“Do those six questions at the end first. Then go back to the front. The second–I mean the second—you find a long sentence you can’t instantly decipher, that question OFFENDS you. Turn up your nose. Move on.”
“So that’s all I want for the week. Two sections. Vary the subject. Every night. Take them like a rock star looking at candy bowls to make sure there are no…oh, look there’s a brown M&M. Skip it.”
“But I might only want to do four or five questions a section.”
“Great. Do those. Then, oh, hey. You’ve still got 20 minutes to kill. What’ll help pass the time? Let’s look at the other questions to see if they hold any interest. You are a movie star stuck in Podunk, in search of decent dim sum.”
“But the whole thing is a lie. The problems I can’t do aren’t stupid.”
“Sure, but we need to fake out your psyche. You have a fragile testing temperament that must be coddled and swathed in protective coating.”
The mom was a bit stunned, but accepting. “So none of the strategies she learned in test prep?”
“Mom, they didn’t work anyway. But what if I don’t have enough time to go back and do the problems that bored me?”
“Then you will have spent a whole test section working on problems you can do. How is that worse?”
“But if I try to read the long passages, I know I will get bored.”
“Well, I have some ideas for that later, but for now, read the passages that meet with your approval, and do the questions. Then for the rest, amuse yourself with the peasant passages. Do the vocabulary questions. The ones with line numbers. Don’t read them if they bore you. Normally, you understand, I wouldn’t suggest this.”
“So practice that all week. Eat pizza, chocolate, noodles, sesame balls with red bean paste, whatever your favorite food is Friday night. Saturday, have a good breakfast and visualize rejecting all those peasant problems.”
“What if I get bored anyway?”
“That’s a very real possibility. At the first moment you identify boredom, put your pencil down. Take a breath. Remind yourself that while it’s scary, this boredom is a valuable opportunity to practice dealing with it. That it only feels like boredom. Do not give up. Do not let yourself randomly bubble. If you feel done and can’t fight off the boredom, put your head down and take a nap. Otherwise, go back to the test and look for test questions that pique your curiosity.”
“But you said I didn’t have to read the passages.”
“Sure. But don’t randomly bubble, or give up. Estimate. Eliminate known wrong answers. Guess based on the context. But if you can’t kick off the boredom and feel hopeless, take a rest until the next section.”
“And here’s the important part: under no conditions are you to worry about your score. You’re not there for the score. You’re there to practice being a rock star who picks and chooses her projects. We’ll do scores later, if you like.”
“That’s okay. I don’t think I’m going to improve now, so at least I might know why.”
“It’s helpful just to know what the problem is,” her mother agreed.
They actually smiled as I left, both noticeably less anxious than they were when I arrived.
Note: she’s a junior, and has no reason whatsoever to take the SAT in October. I tried to talk the mom out of that, but she was determined to keep the date. Ideally, I wouldn’t send a student to try out this method on a live test, but that was the only option.
Will it work, this refusal to tolerate brown M&Ms and uninviting questions? Typically, yes, although since I’ve cut back on tutoring I haven’t run into the prima donna tester in several years. The cases I remember always saw an instant boost of 100-150 points the first time they took the test in rock star mode. In every case, they were also mentally exhausted afterwards. They’d never worked the entire test before, having mentally checked out. Prima donnas are fixable. The ones who go into a fugue state, not so much. Fortunately, that’s even rarer.
I started to make a larger point, but it’s too complicated and, since returning this August I’ve vowed to post more. I had too many ideas piling up that just weren’t…perfect, and so I kept putting them off, even though each idea had more than enough for a post. Time for me to limit scope and bite off achievable chunks. Otherwise I’ll think I’m bored and don’t care when really I’m stressed out….hey. Good thing I don’t get like this for tests.
So don’t read too much into this beyond an interesting behavior that I’ve learned to treat. Don’t apply it to policy. Do I think some people underperform their abilities on tests? Yes, I do. Do I think that tests can be gamed by people whose essential intelligence is high on mimicry and memory, giving the impression of skills they don’t actually have? Yes, I do. Do I think tests are mostly accurate? Yes, for most people. It’s a big ol’ world out there. Many cases exist simultaneously.
Meanwhile, I hope all you testers out there did well yesterday. And if you know any fragile testing temperaments, give this strategy a try.
1 While writing this piece, I googled and learned that researchers call it stress, too.