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Why Gifted Children May Not Test Well

“I don’t do well on tests.”


Ever heard someone say this? Ever say it about yourself, or your child? You’re not alone. Many people believe that they (or their children) are much smarter that their test scores seem to indicate. Some of the time this is wishful thinking, but some of the people who say they “don’t test well” have a point. Academic tests are designed to accurately measure specific knowledge and skills, but they aren’t perfect. Sometimes they indicate that the test taker has higher ability than he or she really has. Test takers don’t complain about those mistakes in measurement. It’s the other side that brings the complaints: Sometimes the test’s ability estimate is too low, and worse, some people consistently get test scores that underpredict their true ability. That’s what “not testing well” really means: getting scores lower than you should. This happens, even to gifted students, and for some of them it happens over and over again.


Normally, we would think that gifted students would be likely to do well on tests, and many do. But for other gifted students, part of what makes them who they are also makes it more difficult for them to succeed on tests. This sounds odd, but over 25 years of helping students succeed on standardized tests, I have seen patterns underlying poor test performance emerge. Here then are the top reasons why gifted children may not do their best on tests, along with suggestions for overcoming these tendencies.


Overthinking

Gifted students are skilled at seeing things in different ways. They come up with possibilities that other people don’t see. In most contexts, this ability is an asset. But on a test, particularly multiple choice tests, coming up with unique interpretations is a real weakness. Gifted students will bend over backwards to find arguments for all of the choices, whereas most people pick their answer and move on.


Overthinking can be overcome. At first, it’s hard to recognize the difference between making solid inferences and overdoing it. However, analyzing one’s results after the fact can reveal a pattern. When taking multiple choice practice tests, overthinkers should note when they are following the straightforward path and when they are going fishing. Then, after the test, they should see how often the straightforward approach was correct. After a while, the overthinker will develop a sense of when they may be going too far.


Perfectionism

Gifted children are often highly motivated to succeed, and they often display great attention to detail. These are good things, but when they go too far, they can lead to perfectionism. The perfectionist student is obsessed with answering absolutely everything correctly. On many tests, an obsession with avoiding mistakes is an advantage, but on timed tests this obsession can lead to disaster. On time-pressured tests you have to move on to scoop up as many points as you can before time runs out. But perfectionist students can’t move on. They’re obsessed with the one question in front of them and sink too much time into it. Perfectionist students do well on the questions they answer but often do not answer enough questions to score well. Perfectionist students have an even harder time with timed essay exams. They are often so focused on writing the “perfect “essay that they wind up writing nothing at all.


There’s no quick fix for perfectionism, but here are some ideas:

  • The first step is to recognize that it is a problem. Usually a bad score on a practice test makes the point, although sometimes the lesson needs to be learned through a bad score on the real thing. One way or another, the student needs to learn that searching for perfection is doing harm.

  • Once the problem is acknowledged, new habits need to be formed. Put the perfectionist in situations in which it is possible to do well even while making a lot of mistakes. Strictly-timed practice on very time-pressured assignments can take the sting out of every little mistake. How many math problems can you solve in a minute? Can you write a good (but not perfect) short essay in 20 minutes? Succeeding on these tasks builds familiarity and comfort with the mindset required to succeed under imperfect conditions.

  • It isn’t worth rewiring one’s entire personality in the pursuit of a few good test scores. Still, the benefits of overcoming perfectionism aren’t limited to tests. So if you’re looking for greater change, consider putting the perfectionist in competitive situations. Sports or even card games can work this way. You can mess up left and right and still win as long as you do better than your opponent. Martial arts are particularly effective in this regard, because part of the training is the endless improvement of technique, but another part is learning how to prevail against someone else. The technique part appeals to the perfectionist’s nature, but in competition the student just needs to find a way to win. Activities that reward precision and practicality can help the perfectionist find a better balance. Playing the card game Bridge is another good option. The bidding stage appeals to the idealist, but the play allows you to win despite your mistakes.


Overconfidence and Sloppiness

This is the flip side of perfectionism. Many gifted children are so used to succeeding without really trying that they are convinced that they can’t possibly fail. Others recognize that they can fail, but keep on making too many avoidable mistakes. So while the perfectionist does well on the questions he or she answers but doesn’t get to them all, the overconfident/sloppy student will answer the hardest questions correctly but miss too many of the easy ones. There’s a famous story of an engineering student whose exam answer was off by a minus sign. He got zero points for the question, and so he asked the professor for partial credit. The professor told him “It doesn’t do any good to build a bridge upside-down.”


Here are some suggestions for overcoming these problems or stopping them before they start:


  • Overconfidence is learned, and so people who are consistently challenged are less likely to be overconfident in the first place. A child who never succeeds learns to be helpless. A child who always succeeds goes too far in the other direction. It is important to maintain a proper balance both in school and at home. At school, even children that breeze through the curriculum can get challenging extra-credit assignments or special projects.

  • If it is too late to avoid overconfidence, then you can still start to address the issue by recognizing the problem. Sometimes a bad score will be enough to raise the red flag. If that’s all it takes to dispel overconfidence, then consider yourself lucky. Often, overconfident students brush off bad results by explaining why the test is stupid or why the teacher hates them. They may even have a point on either of these counts, but assuming that the test and the teacher are reasonably fair, try to address the concerns in the cold light of reason. This can be tough, because the overconfident student is typically resistant to admitting flaws. They may even prefer to get low test scores if doing so allows them to maintain their overblown self image. Blunt confrontation rarely works when overconfidence is entrenched. Instead, slowly demonstrate the real cause of some of the errors, emphasize that everyone makes some mistakes, and help the overconfident student find the better path themselves. Also, try not to get angry at the overconfident student. Remember, chances are you were once like this.

  • Sloppiness is also difficult to address quickly, but again, recognizing the issue is the first step. Analyzing one’s performance is important, because the sloppy student’s test score looks the same as the scores of students with much lower ability. Dig a little deeper and find out where the errors were. If the student handles the toughest abstract algebra concepts with ease but blows the question by making an addition mistake, then sloppiness is the issue. This sounds obvious, but people skip this step every day. A parent once came to me for SAT advice. Her daughter was getting low scores in math despite hours and hours of math tutoring. I looked at her results and told her to stop studying math. She already knew all the math she needed. She just needed to make fewer unforced errors. She did, and got the math score she should have earned in the first place.

  • Then again, making fewer mistakes is easier said than done. Everyone would like to make fewer mistakes, but we all make them. So the issue is how to reduce them. Slowing down often helps. It also helps to know the kind of mistakes you are likely to make. That way you know where to put extra attention. Examining recent test results often helps to uncover patterns, if there are any. For example, if you look at the results of a math test you can determine how many errors were caused by calculation errors or by not answering the question asked as opposed to not understanding the content. The student who makes calculation errors should slow down and perhaps double-check. The student who does not answer the question asked should devote extra attention at the start of a new problem to make sure that he or she understands the task at hand.

  • A student who understands all the higher-order concepts but loses too many points because of simple calculation errors could have a disability. This would not be the leading candidate explanation at first. Initially, the leading explanation of “careless errors” is carelessness. But if the student makes a strong effort to concentrate and still fumbles away points, then a test for disabilities could be worth it. You don’t want to yell at a kid for being sloppy when the kid really is trying his or her best.

  • There are many long-term activities that build one’s attention to detail. If you pick one, try to pick one that mixes in some fun, too. Also, stick with it long enough to see some benefits. This can be a challenge, because sloppy students are often unmotivated as well. Speaking of which . . .


Unmotivated

For many, the biggest barrier to success is not caring about success. Of course, caring about success does not guarantee it: you can fail for lots of other reasons. Still, not caring at all usually guarantees failure. So if a student is not motivated to succeed, then that issue must be addressed before any others. Unmotivated students are more than capable of ignoring tutors, tossing away educational supplements, and learning nothing from the best enrichment programs.


All kinds of students can lack motivation. Gifted students are no exception. Sometimes they lose motivation when they are bored and unchallenged. Others are so independent that they are uninterested in anyone’s approval. Whatever the cause, if motivation is an issue it immediately becomes the most important issue.


Like many problems, lack of motivation is best addressed before it starts, but this is not always possible. Still, there are things you can do (and not do):


  • Don’t chase an unmotivated student. Begging, pleading, and throwing resources at an unmotivated student get you nothing but frustration. Worse, doing so reinforces a situation in which you do all the work and take all the responsibility while the unmotivated student sits around passively. Parents think that they need to try harder (or shout louder) to get their kid on the right track. But more effort or higher volume gets you nowhere if the child truly doesn't care. The way out is to make the unmotivated student part of the solution.

  • Break the cycle: A student who doesn’t care about succeeding is unlikely to care about attempts to help. But everyone cares about something. Sometimes a student will have a special interest in one subject. Sometimes education is a means towards achieving independence. If nothing else, a student who is unmotivated to succeed in high school may want to get into an excellent college that offers a different environment. Having a reason to succeed is a good step towards wanting to succeed.

  • If you cannot discover anything in the academic world that motivates a student, you can try other rewards or punishments, such as driving privileges or grounding him or her on weekends. However, this path is full of danger. Rewards and punishments need to be reasonable, proportionate, and applied consistently. Never make a promise that you won't keep or threaten a punishment you won’t enforce. Unrealistic demands, unkept promises, and empty threats will destroy your credibility. Also, be aware that when a student achieves merely to get some external reward or avoid punishment, those achievements are quite fragile. Sometimes students need encouragement just to discover their own love of learning, but if that doesn't happen then those rewards and punishments are merely postponing the moment of failure. If is wrenching to see one's child fail, but it is better to fail in school (and perhaps get the message) as opposed to being pushed along through high school only to fail in college, grad school, or in the job market.

  • Be patient. Motivation does not appear in one day, but once developed, it endures.


Excessive Test Stress

Here’s another cheery topic. Tests are stressful for everyone, but some people get so stressed out on tests that they can barely function. Test stress has both physical and mental aspects. On the physical side, the stressed-out student may experience an increased heart rate, excessive perspiration, and even shaking. On the mental side the stressed-out student can look forward to panic, a sense of impending doom, and an escalating cycle of negativity. Test stress can affect anyone, but gifted students are more likely than most to stress out. Although some gifted students are unmotivated, many are super-motivated, and this combined with high stakes tests produces a recipe for panic.


Dealing with test stress starts with recognizing its cause. Test stress is an overreaction to one or more real problems, such as not being prepared for the test. Often, test stress comes from fear, such as fear of the unknown, fear of a bad score, or fear of the consequences of a bad score. Once the cause of the stress is identified, the stressed-out student can do something about it. In most cases, preparation and practice can take the terror out of testing. It’s like driving. At first, you don’t know what to expect, and all kinds of horrible things are possible. However, with experience, the terror of the unknown goes away. Driving is still dangerous, but drivers can handle it. Dealing with test stress can work the same way. After all, there’s nothing that can happen on a test that’s worse than the worst thing that can happen on the highway. . . .


Bad Tests

So far, I have described reasons why gifted students may not perform well on tests even when the tests themselves are well-designed. But in practice, tests are imperfect, and some are appallingly bad. Problems include:

  • Accuracy: questions may have no answer, or some of the wrong answers might be defensible.

  • Ambiguous: questions may be unclear in a way that makes them impossible to answer.

  • Irrelevant: questions might be clear and accurate but have nothing to do with the learning objectives being measured.


In general, high-stakes standardized tests given to large populations meet high standards of quality. But smaller standardized tests and individual teachers’ exams often wither under any kind of scrutiny. In theory, bad tests could affect everyone equally, depressing everyone’s scores. This would make it more difficult for a gifted student to stand out. Worse, students who overthink will be more likely to get tripped up over bad questions, as they will spot ambiguities that others will ignore.


If you notice that a test is poorly written in a way that affects your (or your child’s) score, you can bring your concerns to the testing agency, teacher, or the administration, but this is a tough game to play. On a large test, chances are there aren’t enough bogus questions to make it worth filing an objection. Still, if you are absolutely convinced that some questions are bogus and that the grading of those questions made a real difference in your child's percentile ranking, then you can give it a shot. If nothing else, the testing company will probably appreciate the feedback.


An individual teacher’s test may have plenty of grounds for dispute, but many teachers don’t appreciate having their authority questioned. The satisfaction one gets for being correct and earning back a few points is typically outweighed by the hassle, frustration, and potential retaliation involved. In the end, objecting to bad tests often leads to another lesson in dealing with unfair circumstances.


Gifted, but in Something Else

Even gifted students may not be gifted in every way. Some are especially strong in math, or language arts, or something else. Even within math, some students are strong in abstract reasoning but no better than average at simple calculation. Unfortunately, most academic tests are not designed to uncover which of many possible gifts the examinees possess. Instead, they typically measure ability in a restricted number of skills, and so a gifted child whose gifts are not measured by a particular test will have rather ordinary test results. For example, students who are highly creative but not especially good at calculation or reading comprehension often have unremarkable test scores. If your child has gifts that aren't rewarded by an exam, then you can try to contest the validity of the exam itself, or ask for an exception, but these are very difficult paths to pursue. For starters, you would need very clear evidence of some other exceptional talent. Your opinion of your child's gifts will not be persuasive by itself. But even if you have such evidence, reversing the findings of a test is quite rare. A great deal of thinking goes into designing exams, and they take years to develop. Abandoning that investment of time and energy would be a dramatic step. Educators are also concerned that allowing individual exceptions would lead to a flood of similar requests. Another option is to seek out a context where your child's gifts can be expressed. For example, the creative writer who doesn't do well in reading comprehension may not get into an honors English class, but there may be a creative writing class or supplemental program that will give that writer the chance to flourish.

Combinations

So far I’ve covered potential explanations one at a time. But often, more than one of these factors is in play. Some form nasty combinations, such as perfectionism and test stress. Some play off each other. The overthinker is more susceptible to bad tests. Being sloppy and unmotivated is another tough one. But no matter what the combination is, understanding what is going on is a great step towards fixing it.


Conclusion Students who "don't test well" get lower scores than they should, but in most cases, there are concrete reasons for their low performance. Even better, there are steps you can take to help them get scores that are in line with their true abilities. Sometimes the improvement can be immediate. High achievers can quickly learn to not to overthink or to take more time to avoid sloppy mistakes. Other issues, such as motivation, take longer to address. But in any case, the most important step is to understand that "not testing well" is a solvable problem and not a life sentence. A student who rises to many of life's challenges can handle this one, too.

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