The high stakes tests required by No Child Left Behind are designed to increase the number of failing schools (see here and here), thus forcing them to adopt free market reforms like reconstitution, charter school conversion, or hiring private tutors and curriculum consultants. However, as Valerie Strauss points out in a recent piece in her Answer Sheet blog, the increasing emphasis on high stakes tests and the pressure to improve scores may also be increasing student anxiety and their ability to perform well on the exams.
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Test anxiety is considered a psychological condition that goes well beyond the typical nervousness that most people experience before a test. Sufferers experience anxiety so intense that it impairs their ability to recall basic facts, comprehend test questions, and perform to their potential. Thus, the test results that are being used to punish schools and districts and that are driving much of the reform movement are likely skewed, making student achievement and school quality appear much worse than they are.
Straus points out that it is difficult to know exactly how pervasive the problem is, but the American Test Anxiety Association believes as many as 20% of students suffer from substantial test anxiety, while an additional 18% may experience some degree of test anxiety. The problem may be becoming more prevalent because of the intense emphasis schools and districts are placing on state and federal exams. Competition for slots in high status universities may also be contributing the problem by increasing the pressure to do well on SATs, Advanced Placement and even course unit exams.
Strauss’ article provides some useful tips from Annie Murphy Paul, some of which I have been using with my students to varying degrees of success. Paul’s first suggestion is to “Unload on paper.” I call it a brain dump. The way it works is that we review together before the test, and then I have students clear everything from their desks, give them scratch paper and have them dump as much onto their scratch paper as they can remember from review, lectures, and homework before beginning the test. I even refrain from passing out the tests for five minutes to give them time and encouragement to do this rather than succumbing to the temptation to rush into the test to “get it over with.”
The rationale for this strategy is that when students feel nervous, their thinking becomes muddled and their ability to recall is hindered. Anxieties can use up some of the working memory. By doing a “brain dump” prior to even seeing the test, the stakes are lowered and the memories are fresher. It is kind of like being given permission to use a cheat sheet or having open notes, either of which can serve as a “crutch” that relaxes students by giving them the sense they have extra support, thus relieving some of the anxiety.
Paul also points to some research that showed positive effects from asking students to write about their anxieties prior to a test. While seemingly counterintuitive (i.e., this might heighten the cycle of negative thinking), studies show that it actually improved test scores. One explanation is that it helps to affirm and legitimize students’ feelings, which is an important step toward overcoming negative thinking.
She also suggests that test anxiety may be especially bad among girls and minority students because of “stereotype threat,” the fear that poor test performance will confirm negative stereotypes about their gender or race. Writing about such feelings prior to taking the test may help affirm this kind of thinking, too, and Paul points to a study that supports this hypothesis.
Paul’s final suggestion is to lead students in relaxation exercises prior to exams, like a guided meditation that focuses on breathing and body awareness. This is another technique that I have been using for years, with varying degrees of success. Of course it is important to have a plan for how to deal with the occasional goof-offs who don’t take it seriously and disrupt the process for the others, but, for the most part my students do take it seriously.
I regularly debrief with my students after exams and find that the majority like the relaxation exercises and believe they help. However, there are some who continue to do poorly on exams, despite the relaxation exercises and brain dumps. I suspect that some of this stems from intense pressure by parents to perform well or from growing up around anxious parents. Therefore, like many aspects of school success, test anxiety may be influenced more by outside of school factors than by anything under the control of teachers.
So, aside from the three strategies proposed by Paul, if we really care about students’ health and emotional wellbeing (not to mention their academic success), we need to address these outside of school influences. One of the most expedient solutions is to end the obsession with accountability and testing. Since NCLB has done nothing to improve schools, and has almost certainly worsened them by taking so much class time away from actual learning and by replacing thinking and creativity with rote memorization and bubble-in testing, let’s simply do away with it. By abolishing all high stakes exams we will lose nothing in terms of school quality, but we will reduce some of the stressors contributing to student anxiety (not to mention teacher anxiety) and allow schools to restore much of the science, arts and physical education that were cut to make room for more test preparation.
Another solution is to change the way students apply for and are accepted to colleges. Ideally, every student who wants to go to college should be able to go, even if this means providing the remedial courses necessary for potential students who are not yet academically ready and vastly increasing taxes (on the wealthy) to pay for all the extra professors and classrooms. Doing this would significantly reduce the anxiety that many students feel as a result of the competition for scarce university slots. It would also increase the number of people with college degrees and their economic opportunities.
Of course the biggest influence on student anxiety may be their anxious parents. Children pick up a lot from their families, particularly behaviors, social attitudes and coping mechanisms (or lack thereof). Yet a lot adult anxieties stem from their own material insecurity (e.g., how are we going to pay the mortgage with this pay cut?) or from the burden of having too many personal, social and work-related responsibilities (e.g., how am I going to get the kids to school on time and not be late for work myself?) An increase in such anxieties is an expected consequence of the rapidly increasing worker productivity that has occurred over the last three decades, which has made the bosses richer by squeezing more work and greater profits out of their employees per hour worked, causing both a decline in living standards and a rise in work-related demands and stress.
This source of anxiety seems more intractable since a lasting solution requires the abolition of wage labor and capitalism. However, short of this, gains could be made through collective actions by workers to raise wages and improve working conditions. Rather than simply giving the bosses the profits from our increased productivity, we could demand shorter workdays or work weeks at the same or higher pay. The Wobblies (IWW) use to call for a four hour work day and a four day work week. This might seem like a fantasy in today’s economic and political climate, but it is worth working toward as it would reduce (or end) unemployment, provide us with more time to spend with friends, family and to pursue our personal interests, while reducing anxiety and stress, thus improving overall health and wellbeing,.