SAT and ACT Anxiety Among Teens Is Real — and Fixable

The owner of the SAT has outlined new security measures after the text was plagued by cheating rumors overseas.

The New York-based College Board said it is now reducing the number of times the test will be given outside the United States, and that it will increase its auditing of test centers, Reuters reported this week.

“The key to handling SAT stress is helping the child with skills that provide self-suiting validation,” said one expert.

This standardized test is conducted year-round, and takes about four hours to complete. Many students all over the country experience significant stress leading up to their exam.

“I did well on my SATs, but they definitely stressed me out,” a Boston-area high school senior told LifeZette. “The worst anxiety comes if you aren’t a great test-taker to begin with, which I am not. But at school they give you some strategies — visualizing success, deep-breathing — that do help.”

There is a lot riding on these exams for students — some people say needlessly — because the SAT or the ACT is the only quantifiable metric colleges have as a data point to compare the students who are applying.

Numerous college application resources and test gurus agree that test scores are one of the most important elements of a college application. But they're not the deciding element.

For the SAT, the most recent report from the National Center for Education Statistics indicates that critical reading scores average 495 points, while math stands at 511 and writing is at 484 — each out of a possible 800. So, while the averages don't necessarily impress, that doesn't change the pressure some students may feel.

Related: Why 'Legacy' Admissions Value Ancestry Over Merit

Having the knowledge necessary for the test itself is one thing. But because the stakes are higher with this exam than most other exams, it's a good idea to help kids with test anxiety strategies early in life. That way, as tests become an increasing part of their academic experience, they will have one less obstacle to overcome.

Most test prep resources offer tips on anxiety, but those do not address the underlying reasons for it. Dr. Jason Stein, a licensed marriage and family therapist practicing in Brentwood, California, digs into the issue so that parents can actually help kids in meaningful ways.

A mistake that parents make is believing this is a cognitive issue when, in fact, it is an emotional one. "The real issue is performance anxiety," Stein told LifeZette. "The keys to handling it are helping the child with skills that provide self-suiting validation, and that the outcome of any test is not what defines the student. They need to see their own selves in perspective, and cast their performance on an exam accordingly."

Related: PSAT? SAT? ACT? TMI!

This anxiety is linked to both developmental issues and to parenting, said Stein. "It is normal to 'foreworry' about things as part of the developmental process. The fear is that if the child doesn't get a perfect score on a test, they are stupid." He further explains that "foreworrying" can harm the child because it undermines the objective: "It causes emotions, actions, and intentions to [allow the individual to] become disconnected from reality."

Stein called this "worrying about our self-mythology," or the story we tell ourselves about ourselves. If the child thinks of himself, or worries about himself, as a failure, then when the score isn't perfect, he fulfills that mythology.

That's why parents need to focus more on building confidence and helping students set their own standards for performance. It is critical for parents to help children learn how to self-evaluate, so that they look inside themselves for standards and responsibility, rather than outside of themselves — where it becomes easy to play the victim.

We want our kids to ask: "How can I be the best version of myself?" This is self-defined — not defined by external measurements.

After a test score comes in, the parent should avoid judgment and instead ask the child where he or she did well, and where there might be room for improvement.

Stein's biggest caution: subtle forms of disapproval that invade the child's thoughts. "There's a fear of external disapproval that parents have to battle against," he said. "That somehow this performance will receive a negative natural consequence; that friends will think less of him or her; that the teacher will be critical; or that parents will be upset. This is really harmful because it backloads the test anxiety."

Parents may not even realize they are delivering a subtle form of disapproval. The proverbial "Tiger Mom" can push a kid the wrong way, impeding the child's development of his own interior bar for success. Stein advised advancing the idea that grades or achievement are only as good as one's last good grade, as it merely creates a constant feeling of not being good enough.

This all revolves around the single fundamental question that Stein believes is at the center of strong child development: "How can I be the best version of myself?" Notice that this is self-defined, and not defined by external measurements.

As teens begin exams these days at younger ages, parents should think about the messages they send regarding standards of achievement, and help kids develop both goals and confidence. And it's never too late: Even in the months before SAT and ACT exams, parents can help their kids chart a course for college-prep success.

Lawrence Meyers writes about everything from faith and popular culture to public policy and finance. He is the manager of the forthcoming Liberty Portfolio stock newsletter, and has written three books and over 2,300 articles for websites such as Breitbart, TownHall, and InvestorPlace.

Last Modified: February 23, 2017, 12:41 pm

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