On Nov 2, 2021
This past school year has been difficult for students, families, and educators for a multitude of reasons, and so many of the stressors have factors outside of our control. Thankfully, student test anxiety is one area in which we can implement changes to help our students this fall.
As educators, we have all been students ourselves and have likely faced some degree of anxiety over a big test. Do you remember your symptoms? Test anxiety shows itself in different ways for different people. As a special education teacher, I witnessed the gamut: work refusal, crying, hiding in the bathroom, verbal aggression, and physical behavior like flipping tables and desks or hitting school staff. I often saw students avoiding school on test days and having trouble with work initiation. While we cannot see them, we know there are upset stomachs, worried foreheads, negative thought cycles, sleep disturbances and more that so many of our students go through. In special education, many of our students’ disabilities are also closely related to anxiety, and testing can be a trigger that heightens those negative thoughts and feelings.
I think it is common to imagine test anxiety’s impact on older students, such as those taking high-stakes college entrance exams. However, test anxiety affects students of all ages. In fact, studies have shown that test anxiety is actually the worst in the middle grades. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, this anxiety can stem from a fear of failure, negative experiences with testing in the past, or feeling unprepared.
Anxiety does not “look” the same for all students so the same strategies will not work universally for all students. As an educator, you are using your best judgement to know when to push students and when to empathize, when to listen and when to give limits. Here are some strategies to try: just be mindful of how, when, and with whom you implement them as your students will have differing needs. I have broken down fifteen strategies into two primary sections:
A) Big Picture Guiding Thoughts, that can and should be utilized throughout the school year
B) Specific strategies for before, during, and after assessments
Big Picture Guiding Thoughts:
1. Create an overall environment of assessment and self-monitoring in your classroom.
One of my goals as a teacher was always to create a classroom culture that normalized assessment so that it was not a huge ordeal. Educators can do this by reinforcing growth mindsets and reducing the stigma surrounding failure. I like to do this by encouraging group work and problem solving, leading students to provide the “how” and “why” for their answers, teaching students to support classmates, and letting students do test corrections to fix mistakes. It is also helpful to have students get used to seeing their own data and tracking their own progress, whether on their IEP goals or classroom tests and quizzes. By creating an environment
where it is okay to make mistakes, and then helping students track their own growth, you should see assessment anxiety start to decrease.
2. Make sure accommodations and modifications are in place in all paperwork…
A personal pet peeve of mine is when all the special education students in a class have the same accommodations for assessments, regardless of actual student needs. Not all students with IEPs need extended time or directions read aloud, for example. Don’t be afraid to think outside of the box with accommodations for your students as long as you are able to be clear about when and where the accommodations need to take place. Make sure IEPs and testing forms are updated with the appropriate accommodations or modifications for your students right at the start of the school year.
3. …and then make sure the right accommodations and modifications are put into practice.
I recently heard a special education horror story: a family friend told me about a student who uses hearing aids being told he had to remove them before a test by a teacher at his school. Yikes! As special educators we must make sure that accommodations and modifications are not only documented in our paperwork but also ensure that everyone involved in testing with our students follows them. Especially as a resource or inclusion teacher, we must advocate for our students to get the appropriate assistance and then teach our students to advocate for themselves. Do not let staffing be a reason not to provide accommodations; wait until it is possible to test with the correct accommodations and modifications. Worst case scenario: you have to remind others that the IEP is a legal document, and it is mandatory to follow. Work with general education teachers on how to provide accommodations and make sure they understand that they must be followed on all assessments. I often had teachers try to tell me a quiz was small or didn’t really matter so they would not send the student to me even if they were supposed to per the IEP. I have also heard many stories about accommodations not being followed during remote instruction. One of our main jobs in special education is being an advocate for our students and their individualized learning needs.
4. Validate student concerns while putting them in perspective.
I think the worst thing we can do to exacerbate student assessment anxiety is to minimize their concerns. Students want to feel understood and like their thoughts have value. Instead of minimizing, we can help them put the assessment in perspective. Empathize with your students and tell them you understand their concerns. I then like to draw a simple visual for students – I start by drawing a line and explain it represents their life. I make a tiny mark on the line to represent this day or this assessment. Usually students will agree that it seems minimal compared to the whole line of their life. Talk with students about how one test, no matter how high-stakes it may seem, will not change the trajectory of their entire life. Or, chat about what they believe would be the absolute worst case scenario if they fail the test. Often just by saying it aloud students will realize their fears are not as bad as they envisioned, or that they seem unreasonable.