Easing Quiz Qualms

How to boost test scores, not anxiety.

The research has some simple and fascinating things to say about how we can boost student performance on standardized test scores, including a simple writing exercise that can actually reduce the achievement gap in education. Unfortunately, with the mounting pressure to increase standardized tests scores, many educators and administrators are unknowingly creating classroom environments that are not conducive to student success. They are increasing test anxiety by resorting to the use of some pretty controversial statements in the classroom: “If you don’t pass this test, I might lose my job,” or “This test will go on your permanent record.”

As educators, we are better than this. No matter how stressed we are, no matter how much pressure is passed down to us from administrators and district leaders, we simply cannot pass such anxiety down to the kids.

There is growing concern about testing, and some groups have even gone as far as boycotting the tests around the country. However, the test is not the problem. The way we talk to children about it is. I work with kids from a variety of elementary schools and most parents and educators would be absolutely shocked to hear the kinds of things kids tell me when I ask them honest questions like, “What do you think will happen if you don’t pass the test?” or “When you think of the big test at the end of the year, what goes through your head?”

Students as young as 8 years old tell me they are worried their teachers will get fired. They tell me they are embarrassed already, because they know other kids will make fun of them if they don’t pass. They tell me they are scared that it will be on their permanent record. Seriously, what permanent record has a child’s 4th grade test scores on it? I have never had an employer turn me down for a job because I failed the reading comprehension portion of the California Achievement Test when I was in elementary school. Teachers can take a pledge to talk to fellow educators and administrators about possible harmful actions and the adverse consequences of them. If it doesn’t stop, report it to someone who will take action.

Talk to your children about test taking. Listen to them without interrupting and ask them what they feel and what their concerns are. Don’t correct any misconceptions or succumb to the urge to interrupt until they have let it all out. Let them vent. Kids know they don’t have to bottle up their worries with the cork of optimism and positive thinking. Then, work to correct the misconceptions. If it seems like someone at your child’s school is issuing empty threats or creating a hostile learning environment for your child by being threatening, not encouraging, make it a top priority to talk with that person at the school.

Understand, though, that what your child fears may not necessarily be a reflection of what his/her teacher or administrator is actually saying. It could just be the way your child is processing the situation. Kids have very creative ways of interpreting the world around them. The positive slogans, constant reassurance, discussions, pressure and practice with the big test could just be leading your child to misinterpret what it all really means.

On top of the moral and ethical concerns of issuing empty threats to students, we all know that anxiety and stress decreases learning, consolidation, and retention. Chronic stress kills learning. Period. Stressing kids out is not the answer. Changing the way we talk about the test is the answer, and here are three simple ways to make that happen:

Have honest conversations about the test. Do this in a calm, supportive environment where kids are not criticized for their fears or concerns about the exam and where teachers are correcting any misconceptions about the test. This will go a long way in easing test anxiety.

Also, engage in expressive writing. There is quite a bit of research demonstrating that engaging in simple expressive writing exercises about the test, then writing about the things those students value and are grateful for in life, can actually decrease a major source of test anxiety called stereotype threat. Further, this exercise leads to a boost in student performance when they actually sit down and take the test. This simple writing activity helps kids vent and then redirects their focus to the things they love and pour their hearts into. Doing the latter portion of the writing exercise in a varied manner, as often as possible, will ensure that students spend more time thinking about the things they are grateful for than on things they are worried about, like how they will do on the test.

Create a classroom culture that embraces mistakes. By reminding students that you’re more pleased with effort and hard work than correct answers, you’ll positively reinforce behaviors such as perseverance, as well as decrease student concerns about incorrect answers, both of which will dramatically reduce test anxiety. Remember that students perform best in a cooperative, non-threatening learning environment.