On the days when Karla Morton’s fifth graders have to take state-required standardized tests, the veteran teacher is ready — with small treats and personalized positive notes of encouragement from “The Testing Fairy.”

“Students can get really stressed out by all the tests,” she told me. “I want to make sure that they have something positive to focus on right before they start the test.”

Morton taught my younger two children, now teenagers, in their fourth and fifth grade years, and both still remember “The Testing Fairy” with fondness.

“Everyone would always tell us how important those tests were,” my daughter remembered. “Mrs. Morton reminded us that it was just a test—it didn’t make us any better or worse as a person.”

Test anxiety is real, and it hurts our students. Many researchers think that this type of anxiety, where students perceive tests as a threat, negatively impacts student performance at all levels by hijacking much-needed working memory and creating cognitive overload (Putwain & Best, 2011). As my daughter’s quote illustrates, students sometimes allow these tests to shape their sense of self in negative ways, which may be why high stakes standardized tests induce the worst kinds of test anxiety. For example, in a 2013 study of federally required No Child Left Behind (NCLB) standardized tests, elementary school students reported significantly more anxiety about standardized tests compared with the anxiety they felt about regular classroom assessments (Segool et al., 2013).

The most extreme consequences of high-stakes test anxiety are playing out in our headlines about college admissions scandals: Worried about their children’s ability to perform well enough on the SAT, wealthy parents used a variety of illegal and unethical strategies to circumvent the rules and game the system (New York Times, 2019). Some of these strategies, such as abusing the testing accommodation process, may make it more difficult for students with diagnosed learning disabilities to secure test accommodations in the future.

How can we help our students to manage their anxiety in the face of so many high-stakes tests?

A good first step is to understand the root causes of this anxiety. In addition to the classroom environment, which we can control to some degree, a variety of environmental factors, including home life, jobs, romantic relationships, and health factors such as diet, exercise, and sleep can influence students’ overall stress levels, with potential negative impacts on their test scores. As most teachers know, even the word “test” itself can trigger anxiety. With this in mind, one of my son’s favorite teachers rebranded class tests as “celebrations of knowledge” and provided healthy snacks for students to munch on while they completed their exams.

Karl Von der Ehe, who teaches English at a technical charter high school in Meridian, Idaho, notes that his students have to take a variety of standardized tests, including state and national exams. Precisely because these tests are so high-stakes, Von der Ehe believes that teachers must avoid fear appeals, where they try to scare their students into better preparation and performance.

“I like to first let students know the test is an indicator of their current level, not an IQ test,” Von der Ehe told me when I asked him about his strategies for easing student anxiety. “This test is simply a snapshot in time. For example, students take the PSAT one year and the SAT the next year. I try to ease anxiety by letting students know they can improve their scores.”

Von der Ehe recommends that his students use free resources at Khan Academy, which can link students SAT scores to their individual accounts and help them to practice specific areas where they want to improve. “Standardized tests receive a lot of hype, which immediately raises test anxiety,” Von der Ehe said. “The more students familiarize themselves with the test's process, the more comfortable they are on test day. In my experience, exposure to the testing process is the most important thing to ease anxiety.”

Von der Ehe’s classroom observations about the benefit of taking practice tests are backed up by research. Citing numerous prior studies, Rodiger and Butler noted in 2011 that “Retrieval practice provides much greater long-term retention than does repeated study.”

In other words, to get better at taking tests, students need to practice taking tests as often as possible.

One thing is clear: Helping students to manage their anxiety about high stakes tests will improve their testing experience (Putwain & Best, 2011). Elementary school teachers can help students to learn and practice life-long test-taking strategies by addressing test anxiety early. Morton works with several students who have Section 504 or IEP accommodations in place for testing, and she has actually used some of those accommodations as a guide to create an inclusive testing environment for all of her fifth graders.

“I allow for breaks (such as using the restroom or getting a drink of water), the use of earphones/earbuds to help with any kind of noise that could be distracting,” she told me. She also has privacy shields that all students can use to focus their attention on their tests.

Two important takeaways that all teachers can implement are these:

  1. Reinforce students’ positive self-esteem. Make sure that they understand the test is not a measure of their worth as a person—it’s just a test.
  2. Provide students with opportunities to practice and to familiarize themselves with the testing environment.

And of course, encourage students to get a good night’s sleep and to eat breakfast on testing day. Contextualizing test anxiety can help students to do their best when it matters most.

Liza Long

Liza Long is a writer, educator, mental health advocate and mother of four children, one of whom has bipolar disorder. She is the author of the essay I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother and her book, The Price of Silence: A Mom’s Perspective on Mental Illness, won a 2015 “Books for a Better Life” Award. Liza advocates for mental health care on national level and regularly contributes to Huffington Post and Psychology Today.

The opinions, representations and statements made within this guest article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of One in Five Minds or Clarity Child Guidance Center. Any copyright remains with the author and any liability with regard to infringement of intellectual property rights remain with them. One in Five Minds and Clarity Child Guidance Center accepts no liability for any errors, omissions or representations.