“My parents are freaking out so much that now I’m starting to freak out too.”

Those words were spoken to me by a junior just a few weeks ago, and they’ve been running around in my mind ever since.  That student had just received his first SAT scores.  His parents were so disappointed in his scores that they wouldn’t tell him the breakdown of his scores by section; they only told him the total score.  They followed that news with advice to see me about test prep options.  I gather other comments were made too since their son perceived them as “freaking out.”

Parents are in a tricky position trying to strike a balance between paying adequate attention to test scores and paying too much attention to test scores.  Not taking standardized testing seriously enough can result in missing out on admission to certain schools or missed scholarship opportunities.  Taking standardized testing too seriously can “freak out” your child, resulting in stress and tension in your home and, just to make it worse, so much pressure that your child shuts down during the next SAT or ACT.  Indeed, finding that sweet spot on how much attention to pay to test scores is a delicate dance.  As a school counselor I have watched families navigate this for 15 years, and now we here in the Foxx household are doing that same dance this year.  Sometimes we miss a step.  It’s not easy.

So what’s a parent to do?  I’ve got a few suggestions for you:

Focus on building your child up.  Teenagers are trying to figure out their place in the world.  They gradually take on more responsibility and start to assume more and more of an adult role.  They want to understand how they are designed, what skills they have been given by God and how to apply those skills.  They are wondering what their value is in the world, and they’re looking to their parents for help in answering those questions.  Use your words to show them those skills.  Help them learn how to apply those skills in real-life situations.  Support their efforts to become more independent.  Help them identify their academic skills and their non-academic skills.  As your child feels more confident in one situation, that confidence will overflow to other situations as well like standardized testing, schoolwork and social situations.

  • Don’t make the mistake of thinking your child doesn’t understand how important the SAT or ACT is to their college future.  I promise — you don’t need to tell them even once that these tests carry weight.  They know.  Every teenager knows, no matter how disinterested they might appear.  In fact, those who appear the most disinterested might be the ones who understand most clearly the importance of test scores.  They cope with that pressure by acting like it doesn’t matter.

Participate in test prep too.  I’m not suggesting that you should enroll in a test prep class with your child, but I am suggesting that you might want to try some of the practice questions available on College Board’s and ACT’s websites.  You’ll find out that those questions aren’t as easy as you might think, and that 20 minutes passes pretty quickly!  I’m reminded of the time a few years ago when my husband was training to qualify for the Boston Marathon and someone suggested to him, very seriously, that he should just run faster.  While well-intentioned, it was a simple yet naïve suggestion.  The same logic applies if you instruct your child to just bring their score up.  Try a practice section and you’ll see that it’s not that simple.

Talk about something else.  How often do your dinner conversations revolve around college, test scores or grades?  Every time you discuss those topics, you communicate their importance to your child.  And that importance translates into pressure for most teenagers.  The more you talk about it, the more they start “freaking out.”  Find another topic to discuss.  Anything that’s not academic will do just fine.  Even better, do some fun things with your child to help them cope with the stress of their looming tests and college applications.  Divert their attention.  Laugh with them.  Reducing stress will go a long way towards making your home a happy place and towards helping your child navigate the rest of high school successfully.

In the end, the truth of the matter is that our value as a person is not based on standardized test scores.  Our value as a person is based solely on the fact that we are each a precious, uniquely designed child of our most holy God.  Remember when your child was an infant and you looked lovingly into their eyes and, with a heart full of unconditional love, promised that you would show them just what an awesome job God did in creating them?  Well, that moment has arrived.  Make sure your child knows how much you love them and especially how much God loves them, no matter what they score on the SAT or ACT.

 “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us,

that we should be called children of God!  And that is what we are!”

1 John 3:1 NIV

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