Does any of that sound familiar? We hear these complaints from parents all the time. What can be done?
Taking a high-stakes test, like the SAT or the ACT, is a performance task, just like shooting free throws at the end of a basketball game, or performing at a piano recital, or interviewing for a job. There are no retakes; you can't get half-credit for making corrections. Each of these tasks requires a high level of concentration. Concentration is what leads to success.
Okay, so how do we improve concentration? There's only one way to access concentration: confidence. What we mean by confidence is not arrogance or conceit, but rather a lack of doubt, an absence of disbelief. When that little voice in your head that's always talking—"This is so hard...Why do I have to do this...I hate this stuff!"—finally shuts up, only then can you truly be present to the task at hand. For strong students it happens automatically. And why shouldn't it? They've been successful in the past, which has led to confidence around academic assessments, which leads to a high level of concentration, which leads to more success, which leads to more confidence. That's the virtuous circle of success.
For students who struggle, however, a different cycle is in effect. For students who haven't experienced success in the past, these tests produce a great deal of anxiety. The result of anxiety isn't concentration, it's distraction. Distraction leads to failure, which leads to more anxiety. Unfortunately, the advice kids are too often given—"Focus! Practice! Concentrate!"— can actually increase anxiety, which leads back to distraction and reinforces the vicious circle of failure.
It all starts with confidence, and the way we produce confidence is by helping students experience success on authentic assessments. We teach students how to quickly and accurately complete real problems taken from actual SATs and ACTs. Our strategies have been perfected over many years. When a student sees a problem that seemed impossible at first, then uses a strategy that produces an immediate, direct answer: BOOM! The light bulb goes on and in that instant all of the fear and frustration is gone. Success leads to confidence, and a new level of concentration becomes available, which leads to more success. There is no factor more important to success on test day that how you feel on test day. Understanding the relationship between psychology and performance—that's the Performance Paradigm.