Is your child’s report card really reflecting test anxiety? Part 1

My two year old daughter loves the cartoon, Spongebob Squarepants. So, every morning before I go to work, she and I get up and we watch it. The cartoon is mostly just ridiculous, but at the same time it offers some very witty commentary on modern life. Here is a case in point; many of the episodes focus on Spongebob’s attempts to pass  “boating school” which is analogous both to driving school and public school. In the cartoon the students take classes and are then tested on the material they learn in class. If the student passes the test he or she gets a license; if they fail they must retake the class.  According to one episode Spongebob has failed the test 1,970,578 times. The reason for his continued failure is that every time he takes the test he gets so anxious that he forgets all the answers and forgets how to drive.

Testing is important to our culture in many ways and the results of these tests often determine the success or failure of students in school and set them up to succeed or fail in life.  Tests measure the mastery of the material and help teachers and administrators make important decisions about students’ lives including report card grades, grade level promotions, honors, and graduation. Educators also use the data to assess the effectiveness of their instruction (Salend, 2011).  However, tests are somewhat limited in the information they provide in that they only show a “snap-shot” of a student’s learning, how the student performed on a particular test on a particular day. With so much riding on passing a test, it is logical to conclude that nearly all students show some anxiety when taking test. Test anxiety has always been a problem among students, particularly in students with learning disabilities. While they may not go to the extreme of Spongebob, students who are overly anxious about testing tend to score below students with less anxiety. It is estimated that up to 30% of students experience “severe anxiety” when taking test.  So it is very important that parents, teachers, administrators, and everyone involved in education address the problem of test anxiety, because anxiety causes inaccuracy in gauging students’ learning (Huberty, 2010). Students, who experience high levels of test or performance anxiety, encounter symptoms which can severely impair their ability to perform on the test, regardless of how much information they learned. (Salend, 2011). The problem with the situation is that, often, children and adolescents do not refer themselves with emotional concerns, so that in many cases, severe test anxiety goes unnoticed. Therefore, it is important for teachers, counselors, and administrators to identify and address test anxiety in students.

Test or performance anxiety can manifest itself in two basic ways. The first of these is “trait anxiety” in which test anxiety is a symptom of a larger personality disorder. Trait anxiety is chronic and pervasive across situations and is not triggered by events. Educators should take special note of these students and realize that since these students worry about everything, naturally they will worry about performing well on a test. Teachers can identify these students and make sure that the evaluation process is as worry free as possible. Also, it is important to note that trait anxiety may be a symptom or a precursor of much larger psychological problems such as clinical depression (Huberty, 2010).

The second type of anxiety is “state anxiety”. State Anxiety is stress that is triggered by an event. Students who experience state anxiety are not chronic worriers so they may not be as easy to identify. Possible triggers to state anxiety are varied and may differ from student to student. Listed below is a table of just a few of the possible triggers to testing anxiety. Taking steps to reduce these triggers in evaluations can help remove these anxieties and provide a better assessment of student’s achievement.

Table 1. Test Anxiety triggers

Testing Anxiety Triggers
  • Anxiety and attention disorders
  • Obsessive compulsive behaviors
  • Learned helplessness
  • Perfectionist tendencies and unrealistic expectations
  • Stereotype threat
  • Poor study and test-taking skills
  • Past poor test performance
  • Low self esteem and confidence levels
  • Negative attributions, self statements and criticism
  • Lack of motivation and procrastination
  • Family related expectations to excel
  • Teacher and school related pressures concerning the use of high-stakes testing to assess school and teaching effectiveness
  • Highly competitive school environments
  • Distracting testing environments
  • Poorly constructed or timed tests
  • Ineffective instruction

Sources: Cassady (2010); Cizek & Burg (2006); Dorland (2009); Goetz, Preckel,Zeidner, & Schleyer (2008); Huberty (2009); Osborne, Tillman, & Holland (2010); Prevatt, Welles, Li, & Proctor (2010); Putwain & Daniels (2010); Whitaker Sena, Lowe, & Lee (2007); Salend (2011).

With all these possible triggers for performance anxiety and the fact our students are not necessarily coming to us for help, how can we identify students with state anxiety? The answer lies in the fact that anxiety tends to present three types of symptoms these are, affective, behavioral, and physiological. Often all three types of symptoms are present, flushing of skin, nausea, forgetfulness, disruptive behavior, and et cetera.  It is suggested that these symptoms are mechanisms to control anxiety. Some studies show that physiological symptoms are more prevalent in elementary students, while older students tend to exhibit the Affective and behavioral symptoms, as they are more able to control the physiological responses (Salend, 2010). One important thing teachers can do is to observe students and see if they exhibit any of these symptoms.  Table 2. Provides a good list of common symptoms for test anxiety

Table 2. Common Symptoms of Test Anxiety

Physical Symptoms Behavoral Symptoms Affective Symptoms
  • Persperation
  • Stomachache
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Shaking
  • Dizziness
  • Tension
  • Nervous tics
  • Flushed skin
  • Insomnia
  • Frequent restroom visits
  • Difficulties in concentration or memory
  • Misunderstanding  directions
  • Performing poorly on tests when the student has previously shown mastery in non-testing activities
  • Misbehavior
  • Asking unnecessary questions
  • Cheating
  • Skipping class on test days
  • Negative self statements
  • Pessimistic expectations
  • Apathy
  • Compares self negatively to others
  • Making excuses for failure
  • Avoiding testing situations

Sources: Cassady (2010); Cizek & Burg (2006): Dorland (2009); Heiman & Precel (2003); Huberty (2009) Salend,2010.

Teachers and educators also need to know the extent of students test anxiety. To this end the internet provides many online surveys that can measure the amount of anxiety students face in testing situations and how they exhibit their symptoms. According to  Cizek & Burg (2006) there were as many two dozen different surveys and scales dedicated to measuring and recording test anxiety. Provided certain criteria are met, these surveys are a good way to measure anxiety. First of all one should make sure that these surveys come from quality peer-reviewed sites. Second, teachers need to realize that students may not answer these surveys honestly.  Table 3. is a list of quality test anxiety surveys

Table 3. Peer reviewed test anxiety surveys

Test Anxiety Scale

Questionnaire on Attitudes Toward Examinations

Are You Test Anxious?


Are You Test Anxious?

Westside Test Anxiety Scale


Part 2 will focus on what parents teacher’s and administrators can do to alleviate test anxiety


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s