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Turning Test Worriers Into Test Warriors

By Walt Gardner — February 11, 2013 2 min read
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Ordinarily I’m reluctant to write about studies that have not yet been peer reviewed. But I’m going to make an exception this time because of the need to try to help parents and their children cope with the pressure surrounding high-stakes standardized tests. I have reference now to an investigation of the factors that affect student performance on the Basic Competency Test for Junior High School Students in Taiwan (“Why Can Some Kids Handle Pressure While Others Fall Apart?” The New York Times Magazine, Feb. 10).

This is not a run-of-the-mill standardized test. The results determine which high school students in Taiwan are admitted to. More than 200,000 ninth-graders take the two-day long test, which is known for its extreme difficulty. Only 39 percent of test takers make the cut for an academic high school. The rest are directed to vocational high schools or private schools. Cram schools are attended almost every night, as students try to get a leg up on the exam.

Realizing that the exam was an ideal, real world laboratory to study the effects of genetics on cutthroat competition, the director of the Science Education Center at National Taiwan Normal University took blood samples from 779 students who had recently taken the grueling test. Researchers matched the student’s genotype to the student’s test score. What they found has great relevance for students and their parents in this country who are trying to shine on the SAT and ACT. But before I get into this, it’s important to backtrack.

Researchers honed in on the COMT gene. For readers without a scientific background, the gene is responsible for clearing dopamine from the prefrontal cortex of the brain. Too much dopamine, which is a neurotransmitter, is as detrimental to performance as too little. Stress causes the brain to be flooded with dopamine. Some people have a variant of the gene enzymes that slowly clears dopamine. Others have a variant that rapidly clears dopamine. Those in the former are worriers; those in the latter are warriors. In other words, researchers are describing why stress is felt as a threat to some (worriers), while stress is felt as excitement to others (warriors). I thought of that distinction when I read an interview with violin virtuoso Joshua Bell (“10 Questions,” Time, Feb. 18). He said: “I’m addicted to the adrenaline of performing, and I think when you’re used to having that high, you look for it in other things.”

So what does this mean for teachers and parents? For teachers, it’s about recognizing that when students fail to participate in class discussions, for example, the reason may be fear, rather than lack of knowledge (“Introverted Kids Need to Learn to Speak Up at School,” The Atlantic, Feb. 8). For parents, it’s about admitting that they are unwittingly reinforcing their child’s anxiety when they opt out of test taking. Although much of a person’s reaction to stress is genetically determined, training can help students manage their reaction. It’s far more helpful for children in the long run to confront their anxiety bit by bit. Repetition inoculates worriers from harmful feelings. While it’s true that worriers will never become warriors, they can learn to handle their fears better and perform better in high-stakes situations. Unless students plan to spend their entire lives as Buddhist monks on the top of a mountain, they will eventually have to confront situations at work where they will be judged. I think we do them an unintended disservice by shielding them from situations at school where their performance is evaluated.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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