confessions of an exceptional test-taker

When I was in eleventh grade, I blew the verbal SAT out of the water. 800, baby. Racked up 1420 total, which means I was no slouch at basic maths, either. I did even better on the PSAT… which I took a few weeks later.

For many years I had been taking, and scoring well on, standardised tests. This was an area in which being a 1.5-gen immigrant did not screw me royally; I was a student by nature and was thus able to adapt to the relevant aspects of America fairly easily. I learn about culture — I don’t internalise it unless it fits me. With me so far? So the problems that kids from other cultures have were largely absent in me; I just… expanded my notion of “material for the test” to include culture.

I may have been able to make the adaptation because my particular blend is German-American-US Army brat. Some norms will sink in when you watch Sesame Street, even if you’re watching it on the Armed Forces Network from your apartment in Nürnberg. In a lot of ways, I am the quintessential third-culture kid, except my third culture — the blending of two different cultures — is actually a fourth, and there are pieces of fifth and sixth cultures/subcultures swimming in my brain.

Born Confused is more than a book title to me. It’s the best description of what I am.

So just about the only thing I could do was test well, when I think back. I was awkward around other kids (adults were no problem). I tested well, I tested fast, and I had a lot of free time during exam week as a result. Man, anything could’ve happened to me while I was waiting for the buses to run home. 🙂

I got the basics down fast and that meant I had a lot of time to kill. Instead of graduating early and moving on to a two-year school, we were encouraged to take Advanced Placement courses… which, of course, resulted in taking more tests. I confess I was not great with the AP Government test. What test-driven education does not do is account for the humanity of its students. The depression that hit me hard starting in tenth grade deepened until, realistically, it hit its nadir in 2005. That would be a whole four years later. Wrong antidepressant by just a hair, wrong circumstances, no IEP despite the obvious disabling effects of my brain chemistry. I tested well, therefore all was right with the world.

What testing well does not indicate is the student’s performance where the points don’t matter — no, not “Whose Line”, reality. I did well on the majority of my exams because I knew the information and was adept at writing essays off-the-cuff based on whatever I remembered, something they do try to drill into us from a young age. I don’t actually remember the last time I had to write an essay without being allowed to refer to material. Nope, not even in Professor Leuzzi’s class; we worked from what we were given, but we were given what we needed for the argument. This is where the “data-based question” essay triumphs over the flat-out “answer X question in long form” essay on the Regents exams.

Reality is different.

Reality is what happens outside a gymnasium, where you don’t have a #2 pencil, a blue exercise book, or a bottle of water. Reality, for me, was figuring out how to get an education while fighting constant crying jags and panic attacks, and later, a fatigue that only relented if I babied my body. (That is still difficult enough to manage from a place of remission.)

Being an exceptional test-taker, the Child that wasn’t Left Behind, did sweet f.a. to help me after I left high school. I needed to find reasons to take and pass classes, more than “you’ll want these numbers going forward”. I am singularly unmotivated when it comes to work that isn’t going to move me toward a goal. I chafe at the notion of having to leave college “well-rounded”; I have a life and it is rounding me out plenty. I don’t believe we can force anyone to care about subject matter if they find it irrelevant to their lives and futures, so at the very least we’ve got to start looking at what’s relevant to students when we think about the gen ed boxes they check.

Reality differs now from what it was when these standards were devised. We are overdue for an overhaul. It is no longer enough to be the model test-taker, if it ever was, and it certainly doesn’t ensure that a student will succeed outside of high school. Education must shape itself to the needs of the student.

Weigh in: are you a student? Are your needs met? Were they ever? What was your experience?


6 thoughts on “confessions of an exceptional test-taker

  1. AP testing screwed me over. I walked into college a second-semester sophomore, unable to change my major, and without any of the growing-up skills that I really needed to actually succeed in a college environment. Which is why I’m working on finishing college NOW, years after I had dropped out just shy of graduation.

    • They made you pick a major before you set foot in a college?! I understand that’s how it’s done in other countries, but fair’s fair, the kids I’ve known from those countries have typically done a lot of growing up along the way…

  2. I was an excellent test-taker as well. It did nothing good for me, except land me a pretty scholarship for my undergraduate degree (which, perhaps, is enough). The more insidious outcome of being an excellent test-taker is that I got a bit addicted to “success” as it relates to numbers and letters and pats-on-the-back. Real world? None of that. Administrators talk to you when something is wrong. Parents of students talk to you when something is wrong. Your own children will never say “thank you so much for the consistent discipline and not giving me everything I want. I really appreciate it.” So, it can be far to fall when much of your life is about Making the Grade and then the grading system is gone! This current movement toward all-testing, all-the-time needs to go, or else the effects could reach farther and deeper than the powers that be realize – and not just for the struggling kids.

    • One does find a certain orientation to reward in this generation of adults!

      Scholarships are nothing to sneeze at, and I am grateful that at least I didn’t have to pay for the disastrous semester at Alfred. The funny thing thereafter, though, was that I learned how tenuous those scholarships could be, and how quickly life could take away what years of test-taking gave me. Making Dean’s List during my next sojourn didn’t affect me the way Honor Roll had as a child; I placed my worth in the achievements I made in my field of choice, which was English at the time. I lived and died by my abilities for the first time and it was exhilarating.

      Likewise, this last semester, when I wrote papers of which I could be proud, I really and truly felt that pride. As long as I didn’t fail the assignment, I felt fine — and when I found I had failed an assignment, I took just as much pride in making up the work, because the work was what counted. I had failed because I hadn’t learned an important lesson; I needed to try again, and the professor and I came to an agreement about the lesson. I should make a point of thanking my professors for their rigor as well as their mercy! Their strength encouraged me to strive for something greater than I thought I could produce. They became role models. Would that have been as true if not for the collaborative nature of their tutelage? If I had not felt like a partner in my own education, would I have embraced it the same way?

      I think we hurt our children by moving their motivation entirely to the external — external even to their teachers. At least when their teachers are part of their motivation, there is the possibility that children will internalise the goal, which is the lesson to be learned and not just the grade to be achieved.

  3. I am a great test taker, and now, in my mid-thirties, went back to school to get my bachelor-level education.
    Man, I can’t wait to be back to work. Yes, my fellow students envy me for doing everything with relative ease. But I am depressed, extremely tired and see no sense in what I do there. I am chronically not challenged, bored, and fed up with having to team up with those snotty little students who think getting on a team with me is highscore, because they won’t have to work at all if the team grade should be a B or C (that I want and deserve an A is none of their business, they are happy with their C, for doing as little as possible)
    I really want to get back out to the job maket. Teachers my age grade me, I have quite some beef with one or 2.
    When I come home I am so tired of shit that all I can do is surf the internet a bit and go to bed. I am generally suffering from depression, but all this shit makes it even worse.
    4.5 months to go. Still scoring As and Bs although I have almost completely stopped studying. There is one big final exam, and if I don’t get my butt up to study the shit I have learned (and forgotten) over the last 2 years that test could end in a disaster.
    Well, meaning maybe a C for me. Or a D, a grade I haven’t had so far.
    But I am so very, very tired… The A students home is a mess, I have stopped all social activity I can avoid, I just want to lie in a dark room and watch horror movies or the like. For a few months or so.
    Let this be over soon…

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