How unfair are “standardized” exams?

Here’s a story for you: a qualified, experienced surgeon sat for a national board exam and failed miserably. She was devastated, thinking her career—and her life— were coming to an end. She found me on the web and called, sounding quite hopeless.  A woman of color, over forty, she told me the story of the test:  it was an oral exam administered by two old white men.  And the location for the test?  Catch this: in a hotel bedroom.  Are you kidding?  She was so traumatized by the location and the less-than-approving facial expressions of one of the examiners that she fell apart.  And this was billed as a “standardized” test. Are you kidding?

We coached together for 6 sessions. She learned how to stay calm whatever the outer events were (bad questions, weird examiner looks). She practiced recovering her confidence if she felt it was slipping (“I can figure this out,” rather than “I don’t have a clue”), and, most of all, she stayed focused on her goal (to give complete, thorough answers to each question)  She passed!

The moral of this story: don’t be thrown by the circumstances.  You can get over and through any hurdle if you use the tools to stay calm, confident and focused. Even if you don’t think you can, guess what?  You can.   The only difficulty with all of this is that we don’t teach the skills to be calm, confident and focused in school. Kids should be getting this training starting at an early age. These are life skills. Much more important than learning about cosines (sorry, math nerds), or about the War of 1812 (sorry, history buffs). Let’s teach our kids the really useful stuff: how to deal with any test, in school and in life.

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