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Test-Stressed Out: Strategies for Improving Attitudes, Scores

Whether it is simple butterflies or a severe case of "test anxiety," students can feel overwhelming pressure to succeed in an atmosphere of high-stakes testing. With the help of experts, give students in your school the practical tools they need to do their best in math, writing, and more. Included: Researcher Mark Ashcraft reveals what is known about "math anxiety" and how it impedes performance.

"Children with severe cases of test anxiety may have physical symptoms like stomachaches or headaches before or during the test," Deborah C. Beidel, Ph.D., explains. "They may also express fears of failing. Often they are good students who appear to know the material the day before but cannot seem to do well during the examination."

A professor of psychiatry at the Penn State College of Medicine and Milton S. Hershey Medical Center in Hershey, Pennsylvania, Beidel reports that up to 40 percent of children in school and college may suffer from test anxiety. In the culture of high-stakes testing, reducing student anxiety about such exams is a critical part of improving their performance.

"Advise students to go through the test question by question," Beidel recommends. "If they do not know an answer immediately, they should go to the next question. It is wise to answer all of the questions you know immediately, saving more time to work on the harder ones."

Teachers can help ease student stress by emphasizing that tests are tools to identify future areas of instruction that can be addressed by the teacher, or "what the teacher may still need to teach (or re-teach)." When anxiety is severe and interferes with the child's ability to function, professional intervention may be required.

For most students with simple nervousness, basic common sense -- getting a good night's sleep and eating a favorite breakfast before the test -- may be the best remedy. A basic strategy for multiple-choice questions is to look for key words such as "always" and "never," which often indicate that the question or a potential answer is false or incorrect.

"Some children might have been ill or not feeling their best on the day that they took the exam," reminds Beidel. "Allowing a re-test if a child's score seems really out of character would certainly decrease anxiety about bombing future exams. In other words, allow do-overs."


"Performance in math has a lot to do with attitude," Ron Ritchhart told Education World. "In the U.S., it is not uncommon for people to have a sense that math is not for them or they are not good at math. More than prepping for a test, teachers need to instill in students a sense that everyone can do math. Not everyone understands things in the same way, but everyone is hardwired to think mathematically and develop their abilities to do so."

Because standardized tests often differ from state to state and district to district, Ritchhart, a research associate with Harvard University's Project Zero, accentuates the importance of making students familiar with the form and format of the specific test they will be asked to take.

"Many tests ask for students to explain the process they use in solving a problem or to evaluate two mathematical equations to determine which is greater," he explained. "Being familiar with what kinds of responses will be required helps students prepare for the test and not see it as foreign."

Also vital is an understanding of how the test will be evaluated and what things will count. For example, Ritchhart says that simple drawings that show how a problem was solved sometimes count more than words in test scoring schemes, and these "pictures" can often be faster to draw and more clear than words. Teachers can help students recognize the value of drawings and representations as an effective tool in mathematical communication.

Math Anxiety: Numbers Lead to Nervousness

"Math anxiety is anything from a mild dislike all the way up to genuine fear and dread of math and math situations," explains Mark H. Ashcraft, Ph.D. "Cognitively, it impedes math performance by occupying the person's working memory with anxious thoughts, thus detracting from the working memory resources needed to solve the math problems."

The prevalence of math anxiety among K-12 students is unknown, says the professor and chair of the Department of Psychology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, because a cutoff point hasn't been determined. However, it is known that the frequency of math anxiety climbs significantly from sixth grade through tenth and then levels off. It isn't yet clear exactly when the problem starts showing up in children. Ashcraft speculates that when a child gets embarrassed or frustrated in class, especially in front of other students or the teacher, he or she learns a negative connection to math and acquires some math anxiety.

"Teachers seem to have pretty good gut level impressions of who has math anxiety, but I think they may also confuse that with low math ability or just problem students," he said. "A student who turns in a blank exam and says, 'I just choked and couldn't remember anything,' may be viewed by the teacher as simply making excuses for not really having learned the material."

It is still too early in the research to make strong recommendations for educators with regard to helping students overcome math anxiety. However, Ashcraft believes that there is only positive gain in providing a warm and understanding learning environment, a supportive classroom that encourages students to learn, and a teacher who doesn't apply harsh labels when they have difficulties.

"We're just beginning a longitudinal project on when math anxiety starts and what causes it, to see what role is played by teacher's attitudes and behaviors, parents' attitudes, and peer attitudes, so check back in a few years to see what we find," he added.

"Mathematical communication is key," advised Ritchhart. "However, I see too many teachers spending too much time on preparation for the test and not enough time on developing mathematical understanding. Although familiarity with the test can add a real boost to scores, the bottom line is students must understand and know how to use and apply their mathematical skills flexibly in a variety of situations. Test prep is no substitute for solid mathematical understanding."

Ritchhart recommends the Get ICE thinking routine for problem solving. In this routine, students read a problem and then quickly form a mental image of what it is about, the I in ICE. Next they get clear and make sure they know what the problem is asking, the C, and finally, they get a quick estimate of the range the answer should come in, the E. Ritchhart reports that this is a routine students can use very quickly when encountering a new problem.

When students run into problems they don't immediately grasp, Ritchhart offers another secret weapon -- the sticky note!

"It is often hard for students to skip questions on tests, but if after reading a question you don't know how to begin to solve it, it is best to skip it and come back to it later," he observed. "To help students with this, cut a pad of sticky notes into strips and give each student a pack of strips. When they come to a question they want to skip, they can place the sticky note strip on the recording sheet as a marker as well as on the test question itself. This prevents them from getting off on their recording of answers and aids them in finding questions they can go back to if there is time."


Like mathematics, writing in state and national assessments is surprisingly variable, especially in terms of genre, purpose, format, complexity, and evaluation criteria. To do well, students must understand the writing assessments that are specific to their state. According to Natalie G. Olinghouse, an assistant professor of teacher education and special education at Michigan State University, this includes the expected genres (narrative, descriptive, persuasive, compare/contrast), time limits, whether they will be writing alone or participating in any group or peer work, and whether there will be time allotted for planning or revision.

"Students should also be familiar with the scoring criteria for their state and the various writing assessments they will complete," she stated. "For example, some states have one set of criteria they apply to each writing sample, regardless of the genre, whereas other states use different criteria for each writing sample based on the type of response."

There is no need to spend an inordinate amount of time teaching students how to prepare for state or national tests. Olinghouse believes the most effective test preparation is embedded in daily classroom activities, writing daily for a variety of purposes and audiences.

"Making connections between high-stakes test writing and other forms or purposes of writing teaches students to put test-writing in context -- it is only one type of writing to master," Olinghouse explained. "A strong writing curriculum teaches the similarities and differences across multiple genres and purposes, which gives students the skills and knowledge to approach assessment writing more completely. Students learn how to evaluate writing prompts and plan their writing approach, which is a skill that can be applied to multiple writing tasks."

Rather than teaching state writing expectations outside of traditional curriculum, Olinghouse suggests providing writing activities within the curriculum that mimic the state testing circumstances in timeframe, genre, and type of prompt. For example, while teaching a lesson on democracy, a teacher could design a writing prompt that requires students to take a stance on a democratic value and provide support for their stance. The timeframe and directions could be similar to their state's writing assessment. The teacher could then model how to approach the writing task, and provide guided and independent practice opportunities.

"Throughout each step, the connections between state assessment writing and other purposes of writing should be explicit," advised Olinghouse. "The writing task has then met multiple goals: practice for the state test, assessment of knowledge gained from the social studies unit, and practice with a specific genre of writing."

Extensive practice in writing will help students learn their own writing style, essential information for a high-stakes test. Some students prefer to do a great deal of advanced planning before writing, while others prefer to write immediately and then revise their ideas. Teachers should model several approaches to writing under timed conditions to allow students to find their own approach.

"Each writing assessment has different guidelines," Olinghouse observed. "Some allow specific time for planning and revising, whereas others have one time period, and students are responsible for dividing this time themselves. Teachers should know their state's assessment and teach students how to use their time accordingly."

The fact that writing assessments often do not imitate real-life writing situations -- which permit individual topic choice and involve a real audience and a process of planning, writing, editing, and revising -- adds complexity to the task. The structure of such exams can inhibit or constrain the recursive process necessary for quality writing, says Olinghouse.

"Students also need to be aware that many writing assessments do not provide a revision period," she added. "In this case, it is expected that the evaluation criteria reflects first draft writing, rather than a finished product. If students understand that they will not be assessed on a final, refined writing product, but rather on their ability to complete a first draft, they may be able to adjust their own expectations, thereby reducing anxiety."


Kids' Place Houghton Mifflin Mathematics
Students in grades one to six can review their math skills in preparation for standardized tests.

Article by Cara Bafile
Copyright © Education World®

Updated 04/15/2013