Gifted-Ed Guru

How to cultivate and teach talented kids.

Gifted Students: Scared of... Tests? Part 1

Legitimate test anxiety. Maybe being gifted isn't so straightforward after all.

Of all places we could be having this conversation, I note to myself, this is not the location that best lends itself to careful listening or to thoughtful response. Nevertheless the parent who has recognized me as her child’s “gifted teacher” is asking both of me. I hand the young lady staffing the checkout line my loyalty discount card and smile politely as she swipes it and resumes scanning my assorted groceries. Then I return my attention to the woman who has been...what exactly, asking my advice?—for the past five minutes.  

“So I guess I’m confused. She was just accepted into the gifted program and now the teacher says she’s having trouble with tests. Really? Even I know it must look strange. The gifted student who can’t take tests. But I’ve asked her about it and she says she really does know the material that’s on the test. It’s just that the tests make her nervous and she kind of freaks out. And that’s why she doesn’t do very well. But is that possible? Could she really be having a nervous reaction to taking tests? Or is that just too weird?”

Frankly, at this point I am not even sure which person in the story the pronoun "she" is referring to, the daughter or the teacher, but it makes little difference to the situation or the question I am being asked to consider. Here’s what I can surmise: the lady before me now has a daughter, a fourth grader I see twice each week in a small pull-out setting. The young girl has lately seen some of her grades slipping, particularly and most notably when it comes to grades on tests. From the tone of the mother’s voice, and her choice of words, I suspect that this mother is concerned, certainly, but I think this mother might also feel even a little embarrassed about this, particularly because, as she has said, her daughter “was just accepted into the gifted program” and is “the gifted student who can’t take tests.”

She repeats her question again, half to herself, as the cashier finishes scanning my eggplant and tells me the bill’s total. I gulp at the price, fork over my credit card, and turn to the mother, ready to concentrate now.

“No, it’s not a weird question or situation,” I say. “It is very possible for a gifted student to have legitimate, real test anxiety. Being gifted doesn’t give her a pass on that and, in some ways in fact, it might even be a tad more likely for your daughter to experience this.” I’m about to go on but decide that a grocery store is not the best place to explore this issue any further—I have ice cream melting in my cart even as we speak—so I make her an offer. “I’ll tell you what. Why don’t you call me Monday afternoon and we can set up a time to talk this over a little more thoroughly. I can also go speak to your daughter’s teacher and see what she has to say about W__’s test grades. Could that work for you?” I give her my card and the mother seems, for the moment, mollified. I’m sure after we speak next week, she’ll feel genuinely better. There are some things I can say on the matter that might help her understand what’s at play here and what can be done about it.

***

To many people, it seems paradoxical that someone who is gifted could ever suffer from text anxiety. After all, they reason, isn’t an unusually high or successful score on a test (or several tests) the very thing that identifies someone as gifted? Some are even skeptical of the whole notion of “text anxiety,” preferring to save words like “anxiety” for occasions of real crisis, something more life threatening. “Test pressure,” they might argue, “okay. But anxiety? That seems a bit strong.”

In fact, the combination of both possibilities is real.

Let’s begin by defining and describing test anxiety. For those individuals, gifted or not, who suffer from test anxiety, the effects of this extreme apprehension are very authentic and manifest both physically and psychologically. When faced with an exam, those who suffer test anxiety view the occasion as more than a mere assessment offered by the teacher to see what the student knows. This test taker views it as a judgment about his abilities or potential as a student, yes, but he also may very well view it as a verdict about himself as a person. To most of us, this seems extreme at the very least, but to him the evaluation instrument itself becomes so unnerving (and therefore distracting) that his body rapidly enters a fight-or-flight response. Typically, this is a reaction reserved for more extreme crises. In this state, studies have revealed countless times, the short term flood of adrenaline released into the body actually hampers the brain’s ability to think critically, to solve problems, to perform higher-level thinking. After all, the body reasons, its job at the moment is to use that chemical signal to flood the major muscle groups with blood so the individual can either run or fight, yeah, we‘ll leave the balancing of the checkbook or the recollection of a certain Civil War general’s name for a future occasion. Doctors have noted a similar effect in their own offices for years with those who experience the so-called “white coat syndrome.” In this case, a patient who typically has normal blood pressure suddenly experiences a spike merely because it is being measured. Although more extreme in the case of test anxiety, both illustrate how a relatively benign procedure can be perceived as a danger by the individual, and subsequently legitimized by the body’s reaction as a real threat.

That gifted students might experience test anxiety should really not be a surprise. (As stated earlier, being gifted rarely exempts that individual from the same trials and tribulations that others experience throughout life.) Many of those identified as gifted were labeled as such at a young age and probably did not even recognize that evaluation process. IQ tests, for example, do not feel like, nor do they resemble in any way, the more discrete tests of school “book” knowledge. Odd as it seems, the process of being identified as gifted may never trigger the indicators that, later, identify him as one who suffers test anxiety.

Let’s take it a step further: we could very well, and very legitimately, argue that in some cases being gifted even makes that individual more susceptible to feeling immense test pressure. Some gifted individuals are extreme perfectionists: they set impossibly high standards for themselves and are disappointed, even devastated, when they cannot attain those standards. Couple this gifted trait with a situation (such as a high stakes exam) in which that individual knows he is about to be judged and, well, what might make others feel merely nervous makes that gifted individual shut down.

We’ve all heard the annual stories that appear in the news about the high school junior who got perfect scores on her SATs twice. For most of us, we shrug our shoulders (wondering why anyone would take it again if it was a perfect score the first time around) and presume that the kid was gifted. (He probably was.) But now add that news story to this particular test-anxiety-prone gifted boy’s environmental stressors: the unique mix of his parents’, peers’, teachers’ and his own expectations, and you might find yourself staring at a slightly more common profile of a gifted student: he’s not the one that gets perfect ACT or SAT scores; but he is the one who sweats bullets over them.

***

As I put my groceries in the trunk of my car, I consider all of these issues and it occurs to me: when that mother calls on Monday afternoon, I’d better be prepared to offer her a plan, some understandable, step-by-step way of helping her help her child overcome this problem.

Looks like I have some homework of my own to do this weekend after all.

Next Blog: How to Deal With Test Anxiety

If you have experienced (or even currently do experience!) long-term test anxiety as a gifted individual, please leave comments! Others, including myself, need to hear what this is like from your unique point of view.

Christopher Taibbi specializes in gifted education. He has coauthored several books on teaching.

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