Test Day Disasters

ACT, SAT, PSAT, APs.  For many students, these scores matter a great deal for college admissions and for scholarships. Often college admissions officers don’t see homeschool GPAs as valid so test scores may weigh even more heavily for homeschoolers.

In a perfect world, every time a student takes one of these high stakes tests, the conditions would be ideal. The room would be the right temperature and it would be quiet. The proctors would follow the rules precisely and phones would all remain silent. Unfortunately, students don’t always end up testing under such ideal conditions.

Here are just a few of the true horror stories that have been experienced by friends and family:

  • The AP BC Calculus exam given on the other side of a very thin wall with an off key choir practice complete with a frustrated screaming choir director.
  • The SAT proctor who said the directions were “stupid” and skipped them entirely.
  • The apparently unstable PSAT proctor who threatened to cut out the tongues of students who talked and then during the test walked around the room making cutting gestures with a pair of scissors.
  • The ACT test given in a room with open windows while the lawn was being mowed outside.
  • The PSAT administration in a gym where students had to sit hunched over using bleachers instead of using desks.

The majority of time testing goes off without a hitch, but these sorts of horror stories happen more often than you might expect. Many schools take their responsibilities to proctor tests very seriously and they work hard to provide a quiet space where student can do well but sometimes problems do happen. Here’s what you can do:

Know the test
Students who have taken more practice tests tend to be more comfortable. If your student knows the directions ahead of time and feels comfortable with the test there is less to worry about on test day.

Know your homeschooler
If your teen has limited test experience or is sensitive to noise and distraction it may be good to begin to build up their endurance a bit. It may be helpful for them to take a practice test in a coffee shop or main room of a library.

Start early with low stakes
Many students are now registering to take the PSAT 9/10  for practice early in high school. The PSAT is an inexpensive test and there is no risk to doing poorly as the results are not sent to colleges. Even if your student has taken annual tests in a homeschool group setting, testing in a school can be a really different experience. This isn’t a must for every student, but particularly for students who are aiming at highly selective colleges or who have the potential to earn scholarships with their test scores this may be a good idea.

Select your test center carefully
Talk with the local school and ask about test conditions. Just as one example, you may find you have several different options for the PSAT.  Your student may test at a public or a private school. Some test in individual classrooms and some in large cafeterias.

Don’t wait until the last test date
In addition to test center problems, there is also always the possibility of a student getting sick or just having a really bad day.  In one Northern Virginia high school students test booklets were lost. The tests were shipped via UPS and they never made it to the Educational Testing Service so students have to retake the exam. These unpredictable situations are one reason why I suggest for these major exams that students do not wait until the last available test date. Try to schedule to allow time for a retake if possible.


  • Maybe a dumb question, but are students allowed to bring ear plugs to the test? That might help one kid I know.

    • For most tests, no earplugs wouldn’t be a option. Students really need to be able to hear and observe instructions from the proctor about timing. At least that’s the case for group tests like the SAT, ACT, APs, etc. The CLEP test is taken individually on the computer so individual test centers may handle that differently.

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