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How it Feels to Take Math Praxis

This week, I did something that few academicians would do. I voluntarily sat for one hour and took a 40-question math test. How would you feel sitting down for such a test? No Chi squared analyses, T-tests or ANOVAs. I’m talking the basics: geometry, algebra, ratios, fractions, proportions and probability—the stuff high school math is made of. Could you figure out who was taller: Kelly, Alice, Jim or Billy? How about estimate the likelihood of pulling a black sock out of a drawer full of white ones? Care to calculate how much the area of a circle increases when the radius doubles? What about determining which equation matches a line plotted on an X/Y axis? No calculators. And here’s some math you should know: 60 minutes divided by 40 questions gives you only 90 seconds per problem. You may open your test booklet … now.

This was the Pre Professional Skills test (otherwise known as Praxis) that college students must pass in states such as Pennsylvania before they can declare education as a major. Education is a major that students must test into. As a teacher educator, I take the test every few years to see how it changes and what it feels like.

This part about feeling is important. In one of my favorite poems, E.E. Cummings wrote, “since feeling is first who pays any attention to the syntax of things …” Feeling is critical because the affective mediates the cognitive. In a testing situation such as Praxis, if one feels nervous, anxious, threatened, under pressure or stereotyped, it matters little what they know. The affective experience can cause them to temporarily forget information, overcompensate, lose confidence or experience a host of other debilitating behaviors. Of course, virtually everyone has experienced this in some situation. However, what is often overlooked is that situations like taking a standardized test are racialized experiences for many students of color. Let me give an example:

Every semester after my students take the Praxis exam, I interview them about the experience as way to improve our preparation process. A few semesters ago, one student mentioned how when she arrived at the testing center at Cheyney University, she was surprised to see White students there registering and waiting to take the test. This was a natural surprise since most of the students who attend Cheyney are African-American or Black. However, the setting became a racialized experience for my student for two reasons. 1) My student noticed that some of the White students had books open and were making final study preparations before they entered the testing rooms. 2) She was aware of a stereotype that Black students do not prepare for and do well on standardized tests.

My students had prepared well for the exam. But, my student was aware of the existing stereotype (a stereotype threat). And seeing a small number of Caucasian students making last minute preparations activated the racialized aspect of this testing experience. She had to reassure herself that she studied, that people like her pass Praxis all the time and to go in there and “do her thing” as we had practiced all semester long. She did her thing but had to persevere through an additional challenge in order to do so — an affective challenge because of the racialized nature of the testing experience.

What this means for campus personnel is that in preparing students for high-stakes exams such as this, we must pay as much attention to the affective as we do the cognitive. We must ask questions about how students are feeling, understand the specific roots of nervousness and anxiety and give students the tools to self-regulate themselves when faced with affective challenges such as the one described above. Without doing these things, the “feeling that is first” will continue to undermine good preparation efforts.

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