Under Pressure

The National Women's team of Japan pulled off a huge upset against the US Women's team in the 2011 Women's World Cup in Germany.

The 2011 Women’s World Cup was heralded as one of the most exciting sporting events in history – and rightfully so. After all, the event had everything: close games, passionate players, headers, shootouts, and behind it all, a tsunami. But the real reason that the Women’s World Cup has become such an exciting event is the fact that more and more countries are putting effort into developing strong women’s sporting programs, creating unprecedented parity between Western countries in which women’s sports are firmly established and other nations in which athletes are traditionally male.

On Sunday, the Japanese women’s soccer team defeated the U.S. team in a dramatic final match that was decided in a shootout. The Japanese team is undeniably talented, but Americans Abby Wambach, Hope Solo, and others are also incredibly talented athletes – so what pushed Japan over the edge?

Japanese Coach Norio Sasaki put forth this theory: “It seemed there was more pressure on the Americans compared with our team…Maybe the situation was easier to handle for the Japanese team.” There is much to this theory. After all, despite relatively weak fundamentals, the American team pulled off a number of upsets in the games leading up to the final; in those games, the U.S. was the underdog, the pressure was off, and the American players were free to play with heart and joy rather than desperation. In the final game, the tides had turned: The Japanese team was the underdog, and the American team felt the pressure. While the American coach lost her cool, the Japanese coach was smiling and encouraging his players. While the American players stumbled under pressure, the Japanese players executed flawless moves with smiles on their faces.

While there is almost certainly more to Japan’s victory than Coach Sasaki’s statement implies, his observation is both insightful and broadly applicable. Pressure can be both an asset and a liability in winning any game, and indeed in accomplishing any life goal. As the American team’s pressure-laden defeat suggests, placing someone under great pressure to succeed is likely to be detrimental. The human psyche easily crumbles when the pressure to perform grows too great, leading to a lack of confidence and an inability to perform well. And yet, in a society which prides itself on its ability to perform under pressure, we place higher and higher demands on our citizens, and particularly on our youngest members.

Educators and parents alike recognize the detrimental effects of anxiety and stress on student performance, but we continue to place our students under increasing pressure. From the annual testing mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act to parents who spend upwards of $60,000 per year for private school tuition and tutoring, our children are under intense pressure to excel. Against this backdrop, the College Board has introduced a new test for our young students, and with it, a new means of adding anxiety to their lives.

ReadiStep is a new College Board test that can best be described as the “pre-pre-SAT”. The College Board calls this test “the first step on the College Readiness Pathway.” The test, which is administered to 8th grade students, contains questions that are similar in format to those found on the PSAT and the SAT. According to the College Board, the test provides “information on the skills that students possess and the skills they need to develop, and advice on how to further develop those skills.” While some parents and educators support the test as a way of monitoring student progress and college readiness, others question the validity of the test’s results and the practice of beginning the college race so early.

Many of the intentions of the ReadiStep test are laudable. At C2 Education, we share the College Board’s belief that early preparation is important to future success – but is ReadiStep really the best route to success? Here are some of the ways in which ReadiStep falls short:

  • Misleading Scores: Each of the three sections of ReadiStep (reading, writing, and math) is scored on a scale of 2 to 8 – just as the PSAT sections are scored from 20 to 80 and the SAT sections are scored from 200 to 800. This scoring schematic incorrectly suggests that ReadiStep scores serve as an accurate indicator of PSAT and SAT scores, giving many students and parents a false sense of security (in the case of artificially high scores) or fear (in the case of artificially low scores).
    • Deceptive Inaccuracies: Though the test claims to identify strengths, weaknesses, and suggestions for improvement, its accuracy has already been called into question: a professor with the University of California, Los Angeles, recently studied the psychometrics underlying ReadiStep. He concluded that the results are not an accurate reflection of a student’s ability in any given area, adding: “It’s just deceptive as can be. It conveys the notion that your child has these strengths and weaknesses, when there’s no way to tell.”
    • Unnecessary Stress: Many students, even those who perform well, approach tests such as ReadiStep with great anxiety. While testing anxiety is a problem which must be addressed before tests such as the SAT or ACT, forcing 8th grade students into a stressful testing situation is likely to exacerbate testing anxiety rather than relieve it.
    • College Board Oversteps: In many ways, the introduction of ReadiStep is yet another example of the College Board overstepping their bounds by attempting to shape public school curricula. The College Board has already had massive influence over curricula in this country – more than a million students participate in the College Board’s Advanced Placement Program each year, 1.6 million (the highest number ever) students took the College Board’s SAT exam, and approximately 3.5 million students take the College Board’s PSAT each year. Because the College Board’s products are so widely used, schools have altered their curricula to match the College Board exams. In other words, it is the schools complying with the College Board (a for-profit organization) rather than the College Board complying with the schools.
    • Locking Students In: One must also question the timing of the release of this new test. Last year, for the first time ever, the number of students taking the ACT surpassed the number taking the SAT. To make matters worse, 775 colleges no longer require either the ACT or the SAT to be considered for admission. The College Board’s SAT was once the only game in town; now the College Board is losing its market share. ReadiStep is a way of locking students into the SAT track early on, before they have a chance to explore their other options.

While ReadiStep is almost certainly a flawed method, the ultimate goal of early college preparation is admirable. In fact, C2 Education has many students who begin SAT preparation as early as the 6th grade because many competitive high schools and gifted summer programs (such as Duke’s TIP or Johns Hopkins’ CTY) require high SAT scores at a young age. However, while the College Board would like to see ReadiStep administered to 8th graders across the nation, such early SAT preparation is not for everyone. Many students still struggle with the fundamental skills and concepts necessary for success on such tests; jumping into testing before mastering the fundamentals accomplishes little beyond discouraging the student. For information about early SAT preparation, check out this article. To learn more about how to help your middle school student achieve success, click here.

Early preparation, with a focus on mastering basic skills and concepts, is recommended for all students – but ReadiStep simply isn’t the route to lasting success. ReadiStep is an unnecessary additional test which is more likely to produce added stress than to produce meaningful results. If we want our students to perform in school at the same caliber that the Japanese women’s team performed in soccer, then we need to take a cue from the Japanese: Give them a reason to try hard and avoid placing them under too much stress.

Afterword: Tsunami Advice for College Essays

The one thing that your child shouldn’t take away from the World Cup: Talking about the tsunami. Following Hurricane Katrina, 1/3 of college admissions essays discussed the disaster. While attention to the suffering of others is certainly laudable, those poor college admissions officers get awfully tired of reading about it. The tsunami in Japan is likely to become this year’s Hurricane Katrina. Do your high school child a favor – don’t let him be one of the thousands of students who will bore their admissions officers to death with a tale about the tsunami.

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