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The Overshadowed Epidemic in Schools: Testing Anxiety

The symptoms may be sweating, headaches, nausea, vomiting, racing thoughts, dry mouth, or rapid heartbeat.  Starting around March, if you have been within a 15-mile radius of any school, you may have been exposed to “it”.  However, if you are lucky you may have made it to the end of this season without catching “it”.  Oh no, I do not mean the flu!  It is testing season and testing anxiety has been going around.

Many students may not have been so lucky and suffered from at least one symptom of testing anxiety.  This is normal, but unfortunate because this response to testing can negatively affect the results.  “Stressful emotions can inhibit a student’s ability to absorb, retain, and recall information. Anxiety creates a kind of “noise” or “mental static” in the brain that blocks our ability to retrieve what’s stored in memory and also greatly impairs our ability to comprehend and reason.” (“Helping Children Overcome Test Anxiety | American School Counselor Association (ASCA),” 2004)  When this happens, the chances of students displaying all that they know is drastically decreased.

Testing anxiety is not reserved solely for the students; teachers, administrators, support staff, and parents are all susceptible to the stress and pressure that penetrates the building during high stakes testing time. I, too, have counted my fair share of test booklets and #2 pencils, so I know how easy it is to catch the “anxiety bug.”

Stress, in itself, is not a bad thing. The problem is distress, which is when we feel that we cannot cope with a given situation, individual, group, or context (Darling, 2010).

Adults want students to do well and they are constantly communicating this, both directly and indirectly, to children.  The problem is that adults have the potential to overemphasize testing, increasing the likelihood that students will experience testing anxiety.  Teachers may say, “If I don’t push them, students won’t try their best.”  The truth is that there are students who need to be encouraged and motivated but if you push students too hard, it may become impossible for them to do their best.

Reducing the stress in adults can greatly reduce the likelihood that stress will spread like wildfire throughout the building and trickle down to the students. Students are watching, so every educator has the chance to not only share strategies for reducing testing anxiety with students, but also an opportunity to serve as a model for how to overcome stress and anxiety. After scouring the internet and finding a multitude of suggestions for helping students cope with testing anxiety, I collected a few commonly discussed tips and adjusted them to meet the needs of educators.

Maintain a positive attitude. Although testing is important, remember that your self-worth and your skills as a teacher should not be solely ​dependent upon the results of a test.  You should never​ completely dismiss the results because they do provide information about the needs of the students and even some ways in which you can adjust your instruction, ​but it is not the sole indicator of your effectiveness as a teacher.

Create a positive testing environment.  Yes, your walls may be bare but there are still ways to create a positive environment for your students. Remember to smile, laugh, and engage in non-testing related conversations with students and colleagues.

Practice relaxation techniques. Students can see and feel tension. Take deep, slow breaths and practice relaxing your muscles.

Take care of yourself. Be mindful of your sleep habits and your diet during testing.  It is so easy to remind students to get enough rest and to eat a healthy breakfast during testing season but not as easy to tell yourself the same.

Ask for help.  If testing season is severally influencing the way that you respond to students, reach out to someone who you can talk to about it.  If you want the best for your students, chances are that you will experience some stress during this time so pay attention to your moods and the way you communicate with students and others at the school.

In addition to these tips, asking yourself the following questions and engaging in dialogue with others about the possible answers to these questions could positively change the way you enter the next testing season.

-What is the best way to communicate the significance of the assessment without overwhelming students?
-How can we motivate students to take testing seriously without sending them over the edge?
-What messages do we give the students about who they are and how valuable they are when we discuss assessments and their results?
-How do we positively communicate with students when the results are revealed?
-How can you communicate in a way that does not plant the seed for future testing anxiety in students?
Tammy Ramsey, EdS
Senior Instructional Specialist

References:

Darling, N. (2010, January 29). Stressors, stress, and distress. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/thinking-about-kids/201001/stressors-stress-and-distress

Helping Children Overcome Test Anxiety | American School Counselor Association (ASCA). (2004, January 1). Retrieved from http://www.schoolcounselor.org/magazine/blogs/january-february-2004/helping-children-overcome-test-anxiety

Lyness, A. (2013, July 1). Test Anxiety. Retrieved from http://kidshealth.org/teen/school_jobs/school/test_anxiety.html#

Test Anxiety | Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.adaa.org/living-with-anxiety/children/test-anxiety

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The Centers for Quality Teaching and Learning expands and supports high quality teaching and effective, supportive leadership. QTL Processes bring together technology, teamwork, student data and research-based instruction to create more engaging lesson design for greater student achievement.

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