The Physiological Aspects of Standardized Testing

Students often wonder why they fail on exams even when they are well prepared. It is naive to think that there was a brain fart prior to the exam. In this chapter, we will explain the physiology of test taking and advise you as to how to improve your chances for success. The chapter following this will talk about the mental (not studying) aspects of test taking.

Diet is one aspect of the test taking experience that parents and children can easily control. This is hard for most parents to realize, but the diets of most Asian-American children have higher protein, higher complex carbohydrates and significantly lower fat than the typical American diet. What is hard to understand is that test taking stress can be reduced significantly by reducing fats, sugars and caffeine from your kid's diet.

On standardized testing days in 2003, BeatTheTest observed scores of kids who had not eaten breakfast prior to the exam or had eaten right before they were allowed into the school building. If they had eaten before, it was most likely fast food or a bagel with cream cheese and some milk. Some had an artificially sweetened soda or drink with them. The problem is that the meal that they had before the test will most likely shut their brain off around 10:00 am.

After the body digests what it can in the stomach (simple proteins and simple sugars), it sends all the fat and complex nutrients to the small intestine. Students who ate those two fried eggs with ham and cheese are suddenly feeling heavy when the exam papers are handed out (after 9:15 am). The caffeine and sugar highs are wearing off and they suddenly are feeling depressed. Complex lipids (fat molecules) enter the bloodstream. They race to build up the lagging fuel levels due to the lack of energy. By the time these molecules are metabolized into energy, you are well into another section of the exam. Now 11:00 approaches and suddenly hunger pangs set in. Most parents are not aware that processed flour makes children feel hungry long before they are hungry.

Your child is looking at the question paper and it appears fuzzy. The words seem to be slipping off the page. Neurotransmitter levels have decreased. Lactic acid builds up, and a mild depressive state slowly sets in. “I don't know this stuff,” she says to herself. The fat from breakfast is being digested. Blood flows to the gastric tract to absorb the huge cholesterol molecules. Light-headedness sets in. And your kid yearns for sleep. Slowly, out of nowhere, hunger pangs set in. The words are now replaced with thoughts of food. Surprise, surprise. Your kid bombed.

Fact: There are few fat kids who do well on standardized testing.

Compare what was described above to the Asian-American students (consisting of Chinese, Indian, and Korean kids) who arrived earlier and who have eaten a low fat, protein-rich meal the night before. They have slept a full eight hours and completed their REM sleep cycle. They have visualized success countless times (see “The Psychological Aspects Of Testing”). They have eaten a hearty breakfast—light in oils and saturated fats.

These kids have departed for the exam with plenty of time to spare and arrive before 8:00 for an exam that takes place at 9:00. When they get to the exam they are not engaging in useless conversation. Very serious students. Very serious about success.

Around 10 A.M., due to the low fat meal they ate, neurotransmitters are at peak levels for test taking. Critical problem solving is enhanced in the brain by the low levels of caffeine in the body. The brain is relaxed and humming. Logic problems are a breeze. The most boring essay reads like Keats on a summer outing. Around 11:00 blood rushes to the small intestine to pick up nutrients. Insulin levels are level. Hunger is not instigated. The liver releases additional glycogen. Balance is maintained. Lactic acid balances are stable. The brain continues to hum. Sweat is released optimally. The exam is over. Guess what? They passed.

Now how are you going to combat these kids if your kid is busy eating french fries and filling himself up with sugar? Well, you can teach your kids new habits, as opposed to chastising them. Teenagers are very malleable. Here is what we recommend: