Why do some students earn great grades in school but score poorly on standardized tests?

All too many teens find that their first attempts at the SAT or ACT don’t reflect the grades on their report cards. They might find that with their second and third attempts, too, which can be really frustrating for a good student. They do well in school, so why can’t they hack these tests?

There are a lot of reasons, but most of them boil down to the fact that the very nature of these tests runs completely contrary to how certain minds work.

  • Standardized tests require students to sit and focus in a dead-silent room for several hours, as opposed to the collaborative learning and hands-on activity that they might find in a classroom.
  • Admissions tests draw on a much broader knowledge base than chapter or unit tests do, leaving no room for the deep focus on a specific topic that comes naturally to neurodivergent kids.
  • Fully understanding questions on standardized tests can sometimes feel like learning a foreign language. It takes time and practice to get used to the dry, precise language they use.
  • The testing environment may be just plain uncomfortable: a room that’s too hot or cold or a clock that’s ticking too loud or an overhead light that’s too bright and distracting to neurodivergent testers.
  • The pressure to do well can get intense. It’s easy for students to feel like their whole future hangs in the balance on test day, and that’s a surefire way to panic and get thrown off their game.

The solution to these issues is simply to prepare. Students should make sure they know the test material, of course, but those with extra difficulties need to be extra ready. If that’s you, you should take plenty of practice tests to get used to their rhythm and material. Do everything you can to make your testing environment as comfortable as possible, like dressing in layers, taking all your medication and eating a good breakfast. And remember: it’s not the end of the world if you don’t get the score you were hoping for, and it definitely doesn’t mean you aren’t smart. Just make sure to get plenty of practice in before test day, and eventually those scores will show what you’re capable of.


Are the SAT and ACT intelligence tests?
Does scoring well on a standardized test prove anything?
Why aren’t school grades enough for college admissions?


Controlling your test taking environment
What does neurodivergent mean?
College Admissions for Twice-Exceptional Students

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