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Cracking the Tests
If at first you don’t succeed, try something else
D. Perry
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In middle school I passed all my classes and did all of my work. Math, however, was always a challenge. I couldn’t maintain the formulas and numbers in my head when the time came for testing. To pass, I stayed after school for extra help from the teachers. I admit I also cheated at times, by writing the formulas on my hands and on small pieces of paper. I didn’t want to stay back or be called a failure.

From age 12 to 18 I was in and out of foster care due to my mother’s abuse of my sisters and, a few times, of me. I was angry at how little control I had over my life, and I was violent and fought a lot. I was locked up several times.

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Starting in 10th grade, I cut school, skipped classes, and barely studied. I was getting 30s and 40s on my tests. I learned last year that I would have to repeat 12th grade, and that made me want to drop out of high school. I stopped going for a few months, but then I decided I really wanted to
graduate.

My girlfriend and a lot of my friends had graduated. I want a career and I know that to do that you have to at least graduate from high school and ideally go to college. I’m 19 now, and my life has settled down: I moved into a good foster home a few months ago, and I’m getting trauma-informed therapy and take medication. I’m back in school trying my hardest, but certain parts of school are tough for me, especially taking tests.

Test Anxiety

Last year, I thought I might have testing anxiety. Several teachers told me that that I was freaking out because it was my year to graduate and that I was afraid to graduate and move on. They told me I could do anything that I put my mind to.

But I knew what was going on in my head. I couldn’t stay focused. I couldn’t picture anything that the teacher was saying. When I tried to pay attention, my mind skipped to sad things I’ve been through and worries about my future. I sometimes thought I should just drop out because I kept failing tests.

Last semester, I was sitting in algebra class taking a test. I was thinking to myself, “I can’t take this test, I can’t do this.” My body was shaking and I distracted myself by playing with pencils and papers and tape. When I tried to focus on the test, I just couldn’t remember anything. My head was pounding.

My teacher came to me and said, “Focus.”

“I can’t,” I said, agitated. I bit my lip and tried again. I wanted a good grade on my test and to pass that class and get my credit, so I finished the test. I ended up getting a 75, which was much higher than usual. It seemed like maybe my teacher was right—that if I put my mind to it, I can do anything. That inspired me to try everything I could to prepare for the Regents, tests you have to pass to graduate high school in New York. They were in January.

I studied every Tuesday with my tutor, Jake. I studied on my own time at home. I also attended after-school tutoring a few times a week. When I studied with my tutor I felt relaxed and didn’t worry. I understood the material somewhat and had it going through my head. When I studied alone, I got frustrated and forgot more of the material.

As January came closer, I got more and more nervous. And when I actually got in the testing room, I started playing with paper, looking around the room, doing things that I knew weren’t right. I was so afraid, like I was being chased by a pit bull. I thought, “You can’t do it; give up.”

I didn’t pass any of the Regents. I had to repeat the 12th grade.

IEP and 504

I have talked with my therapist about the negative thoughts I had during tests. She told me that I am a smart young lady and that studying and reading more would help. She did tell me that thinking about past trauma may keep me from focusing and paying attention.

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I thought she might be right because no matter how hard I’d try in school, I’d still think of upsetting things from the past. Then I beat myself up for not being able to control my thoughts better.

I had to try another approach. I have friends in special education, and they get the extra help they need to pass tests. I wondered if I could get the school to have someone read things to me. I can retain more from words I hear than from words I read.

So I went to Mr. Baslaw, the teacher who helps with special education, and asked to be evaluated for an IEP (Individualized Education Plan). He told me I didn’t qualify for one because I was 19, and I would have had to start on an IEP when I was younger. But he told me about something called a 504, which is like an IEP but based on a medical diagnosis.

I brought in a note from my primary physician requesting a 504. The note included my mental health diagnoses—ADHD, depression, and bipolar—and the medications I take—Ritalin, Concerta, and lithium. (The Ritalin is supposed to help me focus and pay attention, yet I still have trouble doing that in school.) The note also said that I am in trauma-informed therapy.

Then I had to wait for the guidance counselor, IEP teacher, and assistant principal to have a meeting. They finally decided that yes, I qualified for a 504.

The 504 took effect in November; I was shooting to graduate in June. Under the 504, the IEP teacher explained everything to me at school and sent me emails daily. She read to me slowly, twice if I needed it. I got extra time for tests.

Having work and assignments read to me helped me understand them better. Another thing that helped was Jake—he is a great tutor, and helped me at my house on whatever subject I was struggling with. For months, we worked on English and math. I got a little better due to his help.

Alternate Paths

But at the Regents in June, I had the same anxiety in the testing room, and I didn’t pass two of them. I had to go to summer school and take the Living Environment and U.S. History Regents again in August.

I did not want to fail again. I went to summer school every day and studied harder than I’d ever studied. The school even gave me a plaque for hard work with a picture of a caterpillar turning into a butterfly. I had a lot of people rooting for me—my girlfriend and her family, plus people at my agency and at Represent and YCteen (Represent’s sister magazine).

Another thing that helped was taking my medication regularly. I’ve been taking meds for depression and anger since last year. The dosage is high and I was always sleepy. The medication also makes it hard to focus and remember things. I talked to my therapist and my prescribing psychiatrist about my dosage.

During that visit, I told the psychiatrist that I skipped my medication a lot because I was tired of feeling sleepy and out of it. My doctor explained I was actually making the side effects worse by taking it irregularly. So I started taking it every day, and it was true—I don’t feel as sleepy and it’s not as hard to concentrate now.

For the test in August, I asked to be in a room by myself with a teacher and have the teacher read the questions, and the school said yes. I had the teacher repeat each question twice. When I was finished, I went back over my sheet twice and checked that I had filled in all the blanks. I had less anxiety than when I had to read the questions myself in a crowded room.

I needed 55 on both to pass. I got an 80 on my Living Environment test, much higher than I expected. I passed U.S. History with a 63.

I walked down the aisle that same month in my cap and gown. At first I was shocked. I couldn’t believe I wasn’t in high school anymore. Now I feel pretty good. I got a job as an office assistant at a big medical services company, which is great, and I want to go to college for business administration. I’m glad I didn’t give up and that I figured out what I needed to pass the tests.

(FCYU-2016-10-14)