My Teen Struggles on Tests

By Karen Deger McChesney, Contributing Writer


My high school student keeps up on all his assignments and homework, and maintains above average grades. When it comes to tests, however, it's obvious that he struggles and consistently scores poorly. He refuses to seek help from his teachers. What can I do to encourage him and help him boost his test scores (and self-confidence) in test-taking?


Your teen sounds proud and that may explain his reluctance to seek help from teachers. First, you need to learn more about your teen's preparation process for tests. You can gain a better understanding by observing the following:

  • What does your teen verbalize before a test, if anything? Does he make statements like "His tests are impossible?" or "His tests are stupid?" or "I don't even know what to study." or "I don't careā€¦" or "I can't believe he expects us to memorize all this!"
  • What does your teen do (actions) prior to a test? Actions speak louder than words! For example, does he play more basketball, talk more on the phone, wander aimlessly around the house or go to bed earlier?
  • When does he study for a test? Does he start studying one week ahead, at 10 o'clock the night before, or while eating breakfast the day of?
  • How does he study? Does he stare at notes/textbook, make and use question-answer cards, have you or a friend quiz him, etc.?
  • What does your teen say and do after a test (afterschool/evening)? Is it the first thing he talks about or is he mum on the subject? Is he moving around and smiling or is he sitting and playing with the dinner on his plate?

Next, you want to learn more about your teen's test-taking skills and exactly what happens during the test. Your goal is to find patterns in his test-taking. This requires going behind the scenes and gathering information from teachers, so you have a snapshot of your teen sitting at a desk taking a test. As a parent, I obtained this exact information from teachers. Their observations and insights were priceless! I highly recommend that you email or call his core subject teachers and ask them the following questions:

  • Does my teen use the entire period to finish a test or is he the first to finish?
  • Do you see a pattern in his test-taking, such as lower scores on multiple choice than essay/short-answer or vice-versa or leaving certain types of questions blank?
  • Does he write thorough responses on short-answer/essay tests?
  • Does my teen ask questions during review sessions for tests/finals?
  • Do you see a pattern in scores on quizzes vs. tests?

Lastly, I urge you to take advantage of every second when your teen speaks out about tests. Hang on to his every word. Remember the power of storytelling to comfort your teen and boost his self-confidence. Consider telling your own stories about a high school teacher you had who was known for giving impossible tests or stories about your son's favorite adult relative who had great tricks for passing tests. Stories and humor are guaranteed to lighten the stress your proud teen feels whenever he merely hears the word "test." In fact, stories will often elicit questions and comments from your teen that he would otherwise never ask you. He may respond, "Same here. I suck at essay tests," or "So, how did you pass his tests?" or "That's what my algebra tests are like." Gradually, with your patience and cheerleading, your teen will feel confident enough to speak up and be open to new ways to prepare for and take tests.

Karen Deger McChesney is a Colorado-based high school English teacher, contributing writer to various magazines and educational publications, and stepmother to a high school student.

Advice from our experts is not a substitute for professional diagnosis or treatment from a health-care provider or learning expert familiar with your unique situation. We recommend consulting a qualified professional if you have concerns about your child's condition.