How Taking a Standardized Test Is Like Cooking Breakfast

On Saturdays, our family does breakfast for dinner.

The kids love to help mix the waffle batter, make blueberry faces on the pancakes, and watch the bacon wiggle in the pan. This week’s menu was French toast—my wife’s favorite—so I was sure to have everything in order: I bought the French baguette a day earlier so it could achieve just the right amount of crustiness and was raring to try a newly acquired bottle of fair trade imported Madagascar bourbon vanilla extract.

But Saturday was a beautiful day.

One of the first of the year, so we lingered overly long at the playground that afternoon, and bedtime was coming up fast. When we got home, I became a whirling dervish in the kitchen and everything was rocking. The bacon was sizzling happily, and the first few slices of French toast came out of the pan ready for their glamour shots. But it was taking time. So, knowing better but not thinking better, I turned up the burner on the French toast pan to hurry the process along.

And the process pretty much ground to a halt. First piece, toast. Literally and figuratively. Oh, well. I’ll just be more careful with the next one. But now my focus wasn’t on making French toast, it was on the clock. And hot pans have a tendency to stay hot. Next piece, toastier. Ok – now I’m not just worried about time, I’m also worried about having enough batter to feed my increasingly hungry and impatient kiddos. Great. I clearly don’t have enough time to turn down the heat now, do I? And hot pans stay hot.

You can figure out how the rest of it went…

While somewhat hungrily muttering to myself as I did the dishes after dinner, I couldn’t help but think about how my combustible comestible experience mirrors that of my students taking the SAT or ACT. One of my mantras is “Slow is fast.” What do I mean by that? Taking your time, reading carefully, and writing down the steps is actually the best way to finish standardized testing in time. Rushing through the questions, making hasty errors and having to redo questions, on the other hand, is a recipe for disaster (and, as it turns out, burnt toast). As much as I knew that rationally—and I hope my students know that on standardized testing day—it can still be difficult to put into practice. And all my careful preparation couldn’t save me from myself in that moment—no matter how much fancy vanilla extract I had on hand.

And once the mistakes start, they tend to keep coming. Having seen many students practice standardized testing, I know that for some students, mistakes come in clumps. And many times, when going over those questions, a student will have no idea why they got a problem wrong. The reason often has nothing to do with that problem itself, it’s that the one before it went wrong. And they knew it. Maybe they didn’t know how to do the problem, or simply took what they thought was too long to do it. Now they’re worried about time and not the question itself. And boom. There goes another one. And now they’re really rattled. And stressed. And much like hot pans tend to stay hot, stressed brains tend to stay stressed.

So what’s the lesson here?

Clearly I should have realized after the first burnt piece that I needed to turn down the heat and wait for the pan to cool. Had I done that, all would have worked out, and I would have gobbled up that single dark piece so that no one would have noticed. That would have been the best move going forward, but I had fallen into the Fallacy of Sunk Cost. I wasn’t thinking rationally, I was responding emotionally to the investment of time I had already made. Since I had already burnt one piece, I couldn’t spare the time to slow down, could I? Well… that’s not really true, is it? The piece was burnt. The time was lost. Nothing I could do was going to get either back. The best course of action was to make sure the next piece would turn out well.

And so it is for students taking a standardized test:

One missed problem will not seriously ding your test score. Letting that one missed problem, however, spiral into several. Now that’s a problem. So on standardized testing day, do your best to cultivate a short memory and take those problems one at a time, working slowly and surely. And if you miss one? That’s ok. You control what you can control and move on. That’s the best way to make sure all your preparation translates to success while standardized testing.

Oh, and those first few pieces of French toast? The ones I made before I noticed the time? They were perfectly delicious.