Angela Farmer

DR. ANGELA FARMER

Validation, verification, and comparison are a few of the major reasons that students across the nation now see dramatically increased rates of standardized testing compared to decades past. While legislators and educators can often agree to disagree on the justification and efficacy of such tools, the reality is that the persistent nature of these tests has created stress and test anxiety in some of even the youngest students.

According to a recent publication by Beth Ann Fulton entitled “The Relationship Between Test Anxiety and Standardized Test Scores,” her research indicated a significant surge in student anxiety levels when faced with a standardized examination among a large group of fourth grade public school students in New York. As the students age, the test anxiety does not diminish, especially in states where standardized examinations are used to determine a student’s eligibility for graduation. States currently using such standards to grant diplomas include Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Maryland, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia.

According to a March 2015 issue of NYSUT at nysut.org, “the stress season for students as young as eight is a growing concern for educators.” The article remarks how testing season often results in an expanding stress illness where students get physically ill and emotionally distressed, prompting many parents to either withdraw or opt out of their children testing. Furthermore, for the educators whose jobs might depend on a certain achievement rating, the teacher stress can easily transfer to student stress.

Child Mind Institute’s neurophychologist Ken Shuster writes, “When kids are having test anxiety they can’t think clearly, they can’t judge things the way they could if they weren’t anxious … Abilities get clouded up by anxiety.” While one might imagine that test anxiety is isolated to one subgroup of students, the opposite is quite true. While kids with attention deficit challenges get really anxious around test time, so do those kids who strive for perfection, as well as those students who struggle to perform with their peers on a normal day.

While there is no perfect model to help students manage their stress and improve their responses to test anxiety, there are some helpful strategies. Some of the most useful include better preparation for the testing session. Students need to understand both the nature of the examination as well as the type of questions to be asked. Not knowing if the exam will have numerical or word problems, for example, can induce stress.

Next, they need good examples to study. If it’s math, they need example problems to practice. If it’s reading or science, they need example questions with correct answers so that they can understand how they are expected to frame their responses as well as the level of detail required. In standardized examinations, practicing on old exams is a great way to work through students’ anxiety by spending time on the problems that give them the biggest concerns. Sometimes, students need strategies not only to mitigate their stress, but also to break apart the content to discover the answer. Just knowing that the clock is ticking can induce stress in a situation where a student typically would manage easily. Practicing student work with a timeline that helps them recognize their pace without being stressed by it is a great way to begin shaping students toward effectively managing their upcoming test stresses.

Stresses can be physical and/or cognitive. In any case, helping everyone to best deal with the stressful setting in a proactive manner is certainly the most constructive approach. In addition to curricular and situational adjustments, some of the most effective strategies currently used include simple yoga postures, breathing exercises, and regular episodes of physical activity. Students need to understand that while standardized testing is unlikely to ever completely disappear, it does not define them. It is but one in a variety of indicators of student performance. Furthermore, as many colleges and universities across the nation are modifying their acceptance criteria to use standardized test scores as only part of the rubric, or in growing numbers of institutions, as an optional component of the rubric, students need to focus on learning their lessons in a meaningful and useful manner, where learning is the continuum and assessment is but one of the indicators.

DR. ANGELA FARMER is a lifelong educator, author, and syndicated columnist and serves Mississippi State University as an Assistant Clinical Professor of Honors for the Shackouls Honors College. Readers can contact her at afarmer@honors.msstate.edu

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