In seventh grade, my teacher often split the class into two, lining kids up on each side of the room for a competitive quiz-off. She drew questions from trivia books, ranging in subject from math, to science, literature, and history. A voracious reader with strong recall, I did well in these games. My grades in the class, on the other hand, were middling. “You’re a horrible test taker,” my teacher told me, after one particularly abysmal assessment.
Knowing this, sadly, did nothing to improve my performance. When test sheets were being passed out, I’d hear her words in my head and think about how badly I was going to do, predicting my own failure before answering a single question.
Throughout middle school, my mom fought with school administrators to keep me in the highest track of classes, even though my grades and standardized test scores didn’t warrant it. She knew I was smart, even if I couldn’t always show it on paper. Not until high school did my English and art teachers single me out, recommending I be tested for the gifted and talented program. In those classes, which were small (about twelve students), I found teachers happy to give me extra help and attention, and my report card finally began to represent my abilities.
How can a person be both intelligent and an under-performer on tests? An article in Sunday’s The New York Times Magazine, “Why Can Some Kids Handle The Pressure While Others Fall Apart?” by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, tackles this question in part from a biological point-of-view.
We all carry a gene that regulates our ability to clear dopamine from the prefrontal cortex. Our brain needs a perfect balance of the chemical too much or too little dopamine inhibits our ability to make decisions and solve problems. Scientists have found people have one of two variants of this gene. Some people clear dopamine quickly, while others do so slowly, and still others fall in the middle, carrying both gene variations.
The authors call the two extremes the warriors and the worriers. Warriors perform well under stressful situations, because their brains clean up dopamine quickly. However, they don’t perform as well in the day-to-day. They need a certain amount of stress to give them an edge. Worrier brains clean up dopamine more slowly. They tend to have higher abilities to concentrate, and higher IQ scores, but the same coolness that enables them to focus on everyday activities becomes a disadvantage in stressful situations their brains get overloaded.
In flight simulations where pilots encountered difficult problems while flying, warriors with little training did very well, rising to the occasion. But so did worriers who had a lot of experience. Once worriers acclimate to stressful situations they stop feeling anxiety so acutely, and are able to function at a high level. Applied to school, this means that some of us are naturally not going to do as well in high-stakes testing situations unless we’re experienced to the point that we feel calm and confident if, in other words, the stakes don’t seem so high while others are going to need the stakes high in order to achieve.
This, perhaps, accounts for why my seventh grade brain did so well in academic games, and struggled with academic tests. The games were for kicks, not scores, and besides, they drew on book knowledge that came easily to me stakes were low. Tests counted. They mattered to my grade, and so stressed me out so much so that I couldn’t do my best.
So what can you do if your kid is a worrier, not a warrior? The New York Times Motherlode blog provides some excellent suggestions. Being careful about talking to your child about stress is important, as my teacher’s labeling me a horrible test taker certainly added to my woes. It became a part of how I saw myself as a student, lowering my confidence and instilling a sense of dread around assessments.
In a couple of years, my son will be attending a public school, and I’ve already begun to worry about how he’ll do in a system even more test-heavy than the one I came up in. How can we opt out of these things, I’ve wondered. The Times article suggests this might not be the ideal solution for even the most worry-minded child. Exposing worriers to high-stakes tests to the point where the stakes stop feeling so high can help their performance, though this strategy would not be beneficial for the warriors.
There’s a lot of debate about test taking in our country’s educational system, from the content of the tests to the amount of time spent in class preparing for them in so-called “drill and kill” sessions. Perhaps we should be debating the stakes and not the test, and designing situations and curricula that provide students just the right amount of pressure to succeed. This will need to be different for everyone. One system will not fit both warriors and worriers, not to mention the many shades in between.