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February 27, 2018
No matter the learners’ ages, I frequently see anxiety about assessments. Fleeting knots in the tummy are harmless, but anxiety so debilitating students cannot focus or have effects like vomiting is not.
Amanda Kling is an experienced elementary school teacher, and she has seen anxiety’s effects on her students. She shared some of her valuable lesson planning time with me to discuss her thoughts on test anxiety and standardized testing—topics she is passionate about.
Q: Overall, do you find that test anxiety is more apparent with standardized tests or do you also see it with regular, classroom assessments?
A: It is much more apparent with standardized testing. During regular classroom assessments, too, it is much easier to reassure students that everything will be fine. Teachers have much more control during regular testing situations and it gives those students who suffer from test anxiety a little more peace of mind.
Q: As a classroom teacher, are there alternative types of assessments that you find more effective at demonstrating students’ mastery of content than others?
A: I have always been a big fan of portfolio assessments that show growth. I also think that project based assignments focused on interdisciplinary skills help students see how the concepts they learn are connected. I also favor open-ended questions that require written responses from students. When teachers evaluate these kinds of questions, we can see students’ ability to combine information from multiple sources to explain what they’ve learned.
Q: Do you find that alternative assessments have any sort of impact on students’ levels of test anxiety?
A: Yes! Assessments that require students to explain their thinking, where they know there is no single, correct answer and questions actually focus on what was learned, dramatically reduce test anxiety. Students are usually confident in their knowledge. It’s the stress and rigidness of the testing environment that I find cause the anxiety to show up, and it’s amplified them when students don’t know the “correct” answer. The anxiety arises when they feel they must be correct because the stakes of being wrong are so high.
Q: When you notice that there is test anxiety occurring, what do you do? Are there things you do to help specific students work though it, in the moment? Things you do for the class as whole before the assessment?
A: Since the very first time I administered a standardized test 11 years ago, I have always told my students, “If I’m not worried, you shouldn’t be worried. Do I seem worried?” I never do. I believe that the stress teachers feel being placed on their shoulders comes across in the way we teach, the things we choose to put emphasis on, the kinds of questions we ask, the activities we avoid, etc. Students pick up on this and embody it. I have never had a test anxiety situation get out of hand in my own classroom because I project my calmness and my confidence to my students. I do not let our room get swept away in the hype of testing frenzy.
When I have proctored in other teachers’ classrooms, I try to project the same calm demeanor. I smile at students who look at me and seem tense and I try not to hover around one area too long. I always tell my students, “It’s one test. Just a few days. You’re ready, so there’s nothing to worry about.”
Q: What are some tips you’d give to a parent who came to you concerned about the sort of test anxiety s/he sees in the child?
A: I would tell the parent that much of the test anxiety I’ve witnessed stems from a need to make their parents proud. I would suggest that they talk to their child about what is making the child nervous, and reassure the child that one test score will not make them upset with their child. Growing up, my mother and father always stressed that letter grades weren’t as important as the effort we put in—a C in a difficult class that we worked hard for was praised more than an A on something that was easy. I believe this pushed my sisters and I to always give our best because we knew that would be what our parents wanted.
If parents work on putting their child’s mind at ease about testing, and if this is followed through in the classroom, I believe this will reduce the severity of test anxiety.
Q: What else is on your “teacher mind” about this topic?
A: I am currently reading a fabulous book called Disrupting Thinking, which discusses testing quite a bit and has made me question the reasons we are doing what we do. Is it “best practice” for our teachers to teach curriculum solely centered around one test? Is it really the most important thing that a child receives a particular score on a test if they don’t learn anything from it? What purpose do these tests really serve? Are they helping students get ahead or guaranteeing them a job or college admission?
We have to be careful we aren’t teaching kids that school is a place to learn what’s on the test. Really, school needs to be a place for authentic learning—where we explore our passions and grow as people. As a teacher, it scares me that so many students have so much anxiety due to testing. In the grand scheme of things, what does the testing mean?
Kids shouldn’t be taught that there is always and only one right answer. In addition to test anxiety, we are at the risk of producing students who are less willing to disagree with anyone’s opinion. What is all of the standardized testing doing to students’ reasoning skills? Are students comfortable asking thoughtful questions? Are they relying on teachers to ease anxiety by telling them the “right way” or the “right answer?”
I’d rather have a child leave my classroom with empathy for others in the world, knowing what they love to do and learn about, loving to read for fun and knowing their opinion matters just as much as any adult’s, than have every kid in my class receive a “passing” score. I became a teacher to change this world, one little life at a time, not give tests that stress my students out. I want to teach, not guide test prep.
By Tara Payor, PhD
Originally published in the January 2018 issue of Tampa Bay Parenting Magazine.