As a psychologist in private practice and a consultant to girls’ schools, I’ve been awed in recent years by the rising tide of “test anxiety” that threatens to drown many girls. Whether they panic in private or as part of a group ritual, even our brightest female students seem to fear tests despite overwhelming evidence that they are no less capable than boys when it comes to taking them. The recently released SAT results reflect this, in fact. Female students were on pace with male students in critical reading and writing, and only slightly behind in math. And standardized measures of math test performance other than the SAT find that girls now score just as well as boys.
Some girls dread tests because they are truly unprepared, and other girls suffer from diagnosable anxiety disorders, but I’ve come to think that the pervasive test anxiety I’ve observed in female students signals a way in which adults have let girls down.
What I mean is that adults have largely succeeded in socializing girls to be gentle, kind, and considerate. Perhaps out of fear of encouraging “mean girl” behavior, we do not push our girls to be aggressive—a word that has a negative tone. Yet psychologists draw a clear distinction between healthy and unhealthy aggression. Healthy aggression fuels the capacity to stand up for oneself while being respectful of the rights of others, to compete with vigor, to take pleasure in showing what one can do, and to find a passion for beating an opponent or a test. Needless to say, unhealthy aggression is, well, unhealthy. It is hurtful and mean and involves taking pleasure in the pain of others. Sadly, most of the aggression modeled for girls in classic literature and popular culture is unhealthy. Take, for example, Cinderella’s wicked stepsisters who lie, cheat, manipulate, and don’t give a second thought to violating Cinderella’s rights in order to advance their own interests.
For a long time, we have sent girls the message that all female aggression is unhealthy and that they should strive to be like Cinderella: sweet, a friend to animals, a dutiful worker, and patient with people who mistreat them. We give girls the impression that aggression has no place in their lives, even when it’s time to perform and compete—the domains where healthy aggression is a girl’s very best friend.
Too often, girls face tests the way Cinderella would. They feel that they have no right to show what they know, fear that doing well might come at someone else’s expense, and find themselves easily knocked back by challenges, such as questions they can’t answer. Just think of poor Cinderella. She can’t even stand up to her stepsisters when they tear her dress apart, and she might still be weeping in the courtyard if it weren’t for the intervention of her fairy godmother. Picturing Cinderella at the SAT, it is easy to see a young woman who dissolves in the face of an unexpectedly tough question.
We give girls the impression that aggression has no place in their lives, even when it's time to perform and compete—the domains where healthy aggression is a girl's best friend."
So if Cinderella has no place at the SAT, who does? Mulan does. Disney’s 1998 heroine is an invaluable role model for girls. She is a good woman and a fierce warrior who, incidentally, can only display her skills when disguised as a boy. Unlike many girls and like many boys, Mulan does not confuse showing what she can do with showing off. She takes no pleasure in hurting others but can readily channel her aggression to stick up for herself and go to war for her country. Mulan may be nervous before battle, but she gets fired up and engages her enemy all the same.
If we imagine Mulan at the SAT, we know that she would show up with a take-no-prisoners attitude, eager to prove what she can do, and in the mood to kick that test around and come out on top. Does she run into questions that knock her back? You bet. Does she go cry in the courtyard? No way. She leans forward and tackles the next question with renewed vigor.
As parents and educators, we need to induct our female test-takers into Mulan’s army. Each and every girl has the right to—and indeed should—look forward to tests and the opportunity to conquer the test and beat the other students in the room. When the test is over, our girls can go back to being the kind young women they are. While taking tests, they should be pure warriors. The next time a girl tells you that she fears an upcoming test, help her find her inner Mulan. Turn to her and say, “You are allowed to be scared, but you are prepared and you are fierce. Get in there and attack that test.”
A version of this article appeared in the September 28, 2011 edition of Education Week as Girl vs. Test