Test Taking Anxiety – Turning Knots in your Stomach into Bows

We are heading into a time of the year that for some students can be quite stressful. In April, students in grades 3-8 will take the English language arts and mathematics assessments given by New York State. Each of these is a three day test lasting 70 minutes each day. If you do the math, this is seven hours of testing over two weeks. I have complex feelings about these tests, mostly negative feelings, but I will save those for another blog post. I want you to know that these tests are not mandated by the middle school, nor by the Jericho school district, they are mandated by the New York State Education Department. So I guess I’m saying, hate the game, don’t hate the player.

I recently read an article in the paper entitled Why Can Some Kids Handle the Pressure While Others Fall Apart? The article addresses the complex chemistry of anxiety and how it affects students’ performance on standardized tests. This phenomenon is receiving increasing attention because of the prevalence of standardized tests, “Never before has the pressure to perform on high-stakes tests been so intense or meant so much for a child’s academic future.” The authors describe two types of students who respond to stressful situations. These responses are conditioned by both environment and biology. The article includes a fascinating discussion of the genetic basis of anxiety. There are two kinds of people in the world according to the authors, Warriors and Warriors. Warriors tend to be unflappable in the face of stress. Worriers of course are prone to worry more. The fact is, both types of people have advantages in different situations.

One of the main takeaways of the article is that stress turns out to be considerably more complicated than it has been assumed. It is also far more under our control then we realize; a Worrier can become a Warrior with sufficient training. Moreover, when Worriers were given the proper preparation and training for stressful situations, they actually outperform Warriors. This was demonstrated in studies using students who took the highly competitive Basic Competency Test for Junior High School Students in Taiwan, flight test pilots in the United States and undergraduate students at Harvard University.

In the Harvard study, a test group of undergraduates who were preparing to take the Graduate Record Examination were given the following paragraph to read before taking a practice test:

‘‘People think that feeling anxious while taking a standardized test will make them do poorly on the test. However, recent research suggests that arousal doesn’t hurt performance on these tests and can even help performance. . . people who feel anxious during a test might actually do better. This means that you shouldn’t feel concerned if you do feel anxious while taking today’s GRE test. If you find yourself feeling anxious, simply remind yourself that your arousal could be helping you do well.”

It was found that students who read the paragraph before the practice test scored 50 points higher in the quantitative section of the GRE’s than students who did not read this simple paragraph. I found this to be remarkable and it has reframed the way that we are viewing test anxiety here and I encourage you to incorporate this into the messages you give your children. When my children are anxious about something, I have historically told them not to worry. I’ve reassured them that everything has been done to help them, they’ve worked hard, and they will do fine, DON’T WORRY. But if I read the article and the study correctly, this is not the best way to approach our students’ test anxiety. We need to reframe their nervousness and remind them that: a) it’s okay to be anxious and b) their anxiety may actually help them perform better! It makes a great deal of sense to me.

As we approach the assessments these will be the messages we will give the students. I will not deny that this is a stressful time of year for both students and staff. I’m confident however that with the support of families and their teachers, our students will perform at their highest level, as they always have done. They will do their Personal Best!

I welcome your thoughts on this topic.

About dfgately

Middle School Principal Jericho, NY
This entry was posted in Educational Focus, Inside the Middle School, Personal Best, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Test Taking Anxiety – Turning Knots in your Stomach into Bows

  1. Thanks for sharing your thinking – great observations. I’ve been trying to capture ways we can help students prepare for the tests without adding to their stress and this is definitely something I’d like to share with teachers. My video on Test Prep without Corruption is here:(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3tb4bDhZs6Q). Would love to hear your thoughts.

  2. Jennifer,
    I enjoyed the videos – although i might have emphasized things differently. Thanks for bringing a rational, data-driven, constructive point of view to the discussion.
    I hope the MS and HS Principal will encourage the teachers to watch them.

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