Moving the Goalposts


Besides preparing a student for their exam, a huge aspect of tutoring is managing parents’ expectations. A good example of this is the case of Maxine (not her real name, obviously). She was a fast learner, a hard worker, and a straight A student, so I was concerned when she bombed her first mock exam.

“I’m not surprised,” her mother said. “She never does well on standardized tests.”

This was surprising to me, especially since I ask each client at the beginning of tutoring if their child has test anxiety or underperforms on tests. I adjusted Maxine’s curriculum. Slowly, her mock scores climbed and the anxiety-based mistakes decreased, until she was ready to take her exam for real. And she did great, hitting her SAT target score of 1360. I was proud of her. She was proud of her. Her parents, however, were not.

“She really belongs in the mid-1400s.”

I reminded them that Maxine had a history of doing poorly on standardized tests, and she had worked hard to achieve their original goal of 1360, but they weren’t satisfied. Like magic, the original target score was gone. Poof! In its place was a new, higher score. They moved the goalposts, pushing the line for success farther away.

Parents do this sometimes. Instead of celebrating their win, they feel upset. Some figure they set their target score too low. Others think this success means their child wasn’t pushing themselves hard enough at the beginning. Some think that if a child beats their target score by 40 points on the first test, they should beat it by 80 points on the second.

When a student works hard and achieves what they were told was success, only to be informed that they still need to do better, it can lead to shut down. “Why keep working?” some think. “I’ll never be good enough.”

When Maxine raised her score to 1440 on her third try, her parents moved the goalposts again, this time to 1500. Maxine refused to take the test again. In the end, her parents were unhappy, which made Maxine unhappy, which left me unhappy.

I’m not suggesting that you can’t raise expectations. There is, however, a way to do so that keeps your child engaged, and it’s not pretending that they underachieved when they actually hit their goal. Acknowledge the hard work and celebrate their success while letting them know that they can improve even more. Explain why you think it’s important: students like to know why. This will let your child feel good about their effort while continuing to work hard, and everyone ends up happy.

To your child’s success!

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