5 ways to reduce students’ test anxiety: Remember to S.M.I.L.E. (with bonus educator tips)

Things that go “bump” in the night. The zombie apocalypse. What’s even more frightening to most students?

You guessed it. The dreaded test. The heartbeat quickens. The breath shortens. Soon, a headache, nausea, and other symptoms can occur. What’s worse, emotional symptoms that accompany this fear can include disappointment, helplessness, even anger.

Assessment anxieties are on the rise, along with the increasing national emphasis on testing.

According to the American Test Anxieties Association, most students feel more stressed by tests and schoolwork than anything else going on in their lives.

All this testing anxiety can lead to difficulty concentrating, decreased self-esteem, and—you guessed it again—lower test scores.

Test anxiety is a serious issue at all grade levels

Student test anxiety affects approximately 10 million children in North America. As many as 20 percent of students have high or “severe” test anxiety, while an additional 18 percent of students deal with moderate test anxiety.

Students can begin feeling anxious about testing as early as kindergarten. Test anxiety can continue and even grow through middle school and high school.

What happens when students have test anxiety? Students who are anxious about testing tend to freeze up or “go blank” during a test, which can affect their memory and increase mistakes. In fact, students in the high-anxiety range perform around 12 percentile points below students with low test anxiety.

Any student can struggle with anxiety before and during a test. Common causes include fear of failing, lack of preparation, and a history of doing poorly on tests. Students who are high achievers, who tend to have high expectations, can also become anxious. In many cases, students with anxiety can be well prepared for an assessment yet perform poorly.

As an educator or school leader, what can you do?

Here is a memorable five-step plan to help students at all grade levels feel less anxious about assessments throughout the school year. Whether students are taking formative or interim assessments for screening and progress monitoring—or completing more stressful state-level tests—educators want to always remember to S.M.I.L.E.

S

Stay organized: A little prep work can make just about anything go more smoothly. Don’t wait until test day to organize and streamline your efforts. Take time to determine your needs and establish classroom and school routines in advance. Have a plan in place to allocate computers, tablets, and laptops. If necessary, create a system for students to test at different times. Prepare your students and your classrooms, and you will shine with confidence.

M

Model calm: Students are not the only people in school who experience test anxiety. Teachers, administrators, and other school personnel can sometimes feel anxious, especially as pressure to increase student achievement grows. Unfortunately, this anxiety can spread to students. When it’s time to talk about or give an assessment, always model a calm, cool demeanor. You’ll create a more relaxed environment by remembering to smile and keeping your sense of humor.

I

Incorporate positive energy: Chances are you’ve seen some of the research on how exercise reduces anxiety. However, you don’t need to make students do jumping jacks. Simply ask students to get up and stretch before an assessment to lighten the mood and distract them from the anxiety they may feel. You can also create more positive energy by letting students know it’s normal to feel some sort of anxiety before a test. Knowing they are not alone can help students feel less anxious.

L

Leverage data: What you do with data from students’ formative and interim assessments will affect students the most. Use your screening and progress monitoring data to help provide each student with the right practice at the right time. Review data to determine what’s working, what isn’t working, and most importantly, what to do next. Students who receive appropriate, personalized practice are more likely to experience success and gain confidence, which can reduce future test anxiety.

E

Embrace feedback: Get students to talk about their test experiences, either as a class or individually as time allows. How did it go? Did they feel prepared? What might they do differently next time? Students who learn to make their own decisions about how to prepare for tests begin developing a growth mindset. Give students the chance to share how they feel and provide them with continuous feedback on their progress toward goals to help ensure confidence moving forward.

Bonus anxiety-reducing tips from educators

To add to our conversation, we invited educators in our Renaissance Royals community to share their tips and techniques for reducing test stress. Special thanks to these dedicated and connected educators for taking the time to share their insights.

“If I am relaxed, my students are relaxed. I encourage them before the test and am upbeat during the test.”
Beth D.
Teacher, Missouri

“I remind students to do their best, take their time, and know that I am proud of them for trying.”
Pauline B.
Learning Specialist, Illinois

“I am pretty frank with my students about testing. I discuss with them why it is important and what I do with the data. We write important test dates in their planners to be sure they know it is coming up and on test day, I play it cool. I feel confident in my teaching, and I know I have done everything in my power to prepare my students.”
Katie W.
Fourth-grade Teacher, Wyoming

“If you treat each day the same as you have in your classroom setting, the students feel confident and calm. Also, making sure the students know that they are well prepared because they have done their work in class up to this point in preparation. Remaining calm and confident speaks volumes to our littles.”
Kim H.
Librarian, Louisiana

“I have my students do stretch breaks during testing, and post-test, we do a fun activity that doesn’t require them to use all of their brainpower! As for me, I use essential oils, use the gym when I get home, and eat a lot of ice cream!”
Jessica M.
ELA Teacher, California

“We dim the lights for 15 minutes and play classical music while doing breathing exercises with the students. We encourage the students to do the exercises during testing if they become stressed.”
Lisa C.
Accelerated Reading Coordinator, Florida

“For my third graders, who haven’t state tested before, I show them practice questions and we go into the testing system and practice using the tools to get them comfortable with it. For my older kids, we discuss their previous scores and how they are doing in the current year. I try to connect with each student and help them see that as we focus more on testing in the weeks to come, they are doing great as long as they are doing their best.”
Jennifer T.
Reading Specialist, Missouri

“I think all students want to know that we care about them. I like to plan moving activities into every daily lesson. I also want them to be clear on what they are supposed to know and be able to do by the end of our lesson. Helping them focus on what they already know and add to that learning provides the motivation they need.”
Cathy S.
K–12 Instructional Leader, Alabama

“I remind them of everything that they do know and remind them that no one knows everything. This helps review known material and helps prevent them from shutting down if they come to a question they don’t know the answer to.”
Vanessa W.
Second-grade Teacher, Alabama

Another way to reduce students’ test anxiety?

Spend less time testing. Explore how Renaissance Star 360® reduces testing time (test in one-third the time) while providing valid, reliable screening and progress-monitoring data.

Star Assessments also enable educators to predict performance on state summative tests in time to intervene and make a difference. Knowing where all students stand on the path to proficiency in your state can reduce test anxiety for educators and administrators, as well as students.

Sources

American Test Anxieties Association, Text Anxiety. Retrieved from https://amtaa.org/
Anxiety and Depression Association of America, Test Anxiety. Retrieved from https://adaa.org/living-with-anxiety/children/test-anxiety
Oxford Learning, (2018). What is Test Anxiety (and How it Affects Students). Retrieved from https://www.oxfordlearning.com/what-is-test-anxiety/

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