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My Mixed Thoughts on Standardized Testing and ADHD

For better or worse, high-stakes standardized testing has become a core part of our educational system.

Actually let me rephrase that: mostly for worse, high-stakes standardized testing has become a core part of our educational system.

Why for worse? Because standardized tests capture a very narrow portion of what students are learning. Because simply training students to do well on a multiple-choice test probably isn’t the best way to help them grow and become critical thinkers. Because rich families are paying $75,000 to cheat on the SAT.

As someone with ADHD, I have mixed thoughts on standardized testing.

Standardized TestOne of my least favorite ADHD-related aspects of high-stakes standardized testing is that inattentive errors have, well, high stakes. In everyday life, we can laugh off circling the wrong option on a form or swapping the digits in a number. But when we do that on one of a limited number of problems on a standardized test that directly factors our future plans, it’s just not quite as funny.

Then there’s the whole time limit situation. I guess in this case I’m relatively lucky that my problem with tests has generally been rushing through things, so my ADHD symptoms haven’t caused me major problems with sticking to time limits on standardized tests. But I definitely see how ADHD-related issues with tracking and managing time could add all kinds of obstacles with this feature of standardized tests, which is why I think it makes a lot of sense for people with ADHD to be eligible for extra time.

So far I’ve listed things I don’t like about standardized tests, but there’s one reason I actually like standardized tests in some ways. It’s a fairly self-centered reason: generally, my standardized test scores were better than my grades when I was in school.

The way I see it, because grades are an aggregate of your day-to-day performance on tests and homework, they measure a lot of traits like consistency, organizational skills, time management, simply doing what your teacher tells you to do, and so on. Grades indicate how well you’ve adapted to the overall structure of school, and in many cases ADHD symptoms throw a wrench into that process – and therefore, your grades.

To some extent, that’s true of standardized tests as well, but I think standardized tests are less an indicator of your “consistency” as a student. They’re more about being able to solve some problems at a single point in time. Moreover, the pressure associated with standardized tests might even help some people with ADHD concentrate on academic tasks they’d normally find understimulating, much the same way leaving a task until right before a deadline can kick our brains into gear.

I don’t mean to talk up standardized tests too much. We should probably admit that neither standardized tests nor grades measure someone’s ability to genuinely learn. Standardized tests measure your ability to take tests. Grades measure your ability to consistently perform tasks that are assigned to you. Neither of those things directly speaks to the depth or breadth of your knowledge or your ability to think critically about a subject.

So I wouldn’t mind seeing standardized testing relegated to a more minor role in determining how people progress through the educational system. But only if we relegate GPA to a more minor role too!

Image: Flickr/biologycorner

My Mixed Thoughts on Standardized Testing and ADHD

Neil Petersen

Neil Petersen writes regularly on psychology, ADHD and education. In addition to ADHD Millennial, he writes about psychology at Psych Central's AllPsych blog and about ADHD at He can be found on Twitter at @ADaptHD_blog

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APA Reference
Petersen, N. (2020). My Mixed Thoughts on Standardized Testing and ADHD. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 27, 2020, from


Last updated: 6 May 2020
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