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Test Anxiety

How can elementary schools improve
standardized, multiple-choice test scores?
Missing Figures
Long Term Memory
     How to Take Tests
     Test Anxiety (not enough or too much?)


Missing Figures

For a race, would you place your bet on a work horse or a race horse? It isn't a fair comparison? That is true, but states make this kind of unfair comparison when reporting test scores. Many top ranking states report scores only on their advanced students. Many lower ranking states report scores on a much larger range of students. Some states report scores on students who read far below grade level.

How can we expect scores made by remedial, average, and advanced students to be comparable to scores made only by advanced students? The missing figures would tell quite a different story if they were included in reports from the top ranking states.

States should work toward a more equitable way of comparing scores. In other words, some schools improve scores by being careful about which scores they report!


Long Term Memory

Long term memory can be compared to information which we store on a computer. It is there, somewhere, but we need to remember how to access it. Even if the computer does a search, we need to supply part or all of the title. This is like a memory cue.

Memory cues help us retrieve information from long term memory. Little Lemon: Activities for Developing Motivation and Memory Skills, helps children in K-3 learn how to use memory cues.

Visit the learning strategies and study skills page. There are books for older children, teens, and adults about how to learn and remember.

Vocabulary improvement helps children make more mental connections, understand test instructions, and have better reading comprehension. Test scores tend to be higher in reading and in other areas for students who have larger vocabularies. See the vocabulary lesson plan.

Several lesson plans on this site help children learn to store information in long term memory and help them learn to retrieve the information.


How to Take Tests

I've given group and individual standardized tests in kindergarten though college in NC, SC, and GA. Each statement is based on my observations or experiences.

Some specific considerations for educators:

  1. Ask your PTA to help parents understand their roles on test days: a good breakfast, avoidance of a long bus ride by taking kids to school this week if possible, getting to bed at a reasonable hour, etc. Yes, this good for the whole school year, but there can be a greater focus on it during these days.

  2. Do you need your coffee break? Kids need a break, too. I'm not suggesting caffeine or sugar which can increase children's inability to focus. These might help you focus but they usually have a negative effect on children's ability to concentrate. Milk can be an excellent booster. Provide a nutritional alternative for children who have an intolerance for milk.

  3. In spite of your directions, some parents will send children to school without breakfast. If your school doesn't have funds for providing breakfast, perhaps you can have a simple breakfast such as cereal donated during this week.

  4. You've heard of fanny fatigue. The test publishers recommend letting children have some physical release of energy between sessions. Do it, but don't over do it. Don't exhaust them. A brief walk outside can be helpful if the weather cooperates. Children benefit from more of a break than just a trip to the restroom. In the classroom, children can walk in place, stretch, sing with some movements, etc. Ideally they could have free play so that those who have greater energy can run, and those who prefer to walk can walk or just stand and talk. They need a break in mental and physical activity as well as a nutritional boost.

  5. Before adults teach about test taking skills, it can be helpful to refresh our memories on the topic with a book such as The Secrets of Taking Any Test. A book which helps you relate this knowledge to children is Teaching Test Taking Skills: Helping Students Show What They Know.

  6. Most standardized test publishers offer sample or practice tests. The main benefit of giving these is to help children understand how to take tests. Be sure they understand the directions. On the actual tests, you are instructed not to give explanations. That should have been done with sample or practice tests. Take a close look at the sample or practice tests to determine which children simply did not follow directions. Give them extra help in understanding how to take the tests.

  7. Unless the publisher directs otherwise, children can put a small mark by the number on the answer sheet if they are stuck on a question and need to come back to it later. Tell them not to mark the test booklet. Be sure they understand that you don't mean for the mark to be where the item is scored. You can demonstrate this on the board.

  8. Examine answer sheets for stray marks. Don't expect your counselor, or other test coordinator to check all of them and erase stray marks which could change an answer. Remember, this person is responsible for the whole school. You only have your little group. Don't let children see you examining the sheets. They need to be responsible for not making stray marks.

  9. Be sure children are marking the answer which corresponds with the question. I've even had this problem with middle school students when they started a new page. Quietly walk around the room, and subtly check on this. If you see the problem, make a note of it but do not disrupt testing. Schedule that child for a make up test using an alternative form of the test. Talk with your counselor or school psychologist about this ahead of time so alternative forms can be on hand.

  10. Maintain adequate physical conditions. I've seen kids trying to read the tests as they squinted because of sunlight glaring on the paper, or they shivered in blasts of wind from the air conditioner, or they sweated in front of the heating unit. With small children, be sure their feet can touch the floor. With larger children, be sure they aren't humped over a desk which is too small. These things cause fatigue and keep them from doing their best.

  11. Help children concentrate. Don't whisper to co-workers while testing is in progress. If you must communicate, write it down. I know you are bored but you should be monitoring what is happening anyway. Sometimes, educators do unintentionally distract children.

Some specific directions for children:

  1. Don't spend too long on one question. You might need to put a small mark by the question and move on. Come back to it later if there is time.

  2. Don't go too fast. Think about the questions.

  3. If you finish before time is up, check over your answers.

  4. Give just one answer unless the question calls for more than one answer. Most questions will call for only one answer.

  5. Answer each question in your head before you look at the choices.

  6. If two of the four answers are alike, except for one or two words, choose one of these two answers.

  7. Be sure that you mark the answer the right question. If you skip a question, be sure to leave that answer blank on the answer sheet.

  8. On true - false tests, mark the answer as false if any part is false.


Test Anxiety
(not enough or too much?)

I've seen some students who were so anxious that they threw up during the test. I'm sure it wasn't an illness because no other symptoms appeared. Retesting was done in a small group with rewards for effort rather than accomplishment. I'll say more about that later. The students did not have an adverse reaction to testing under these conditions.

With adults and teens, there are realistic consequences which justify test anxiety: a job, a scholarship, etc. Methods for dealing with that are in some of the books I've mentioned. Coping.org has tools for coping with a variety of life's stressors.

I will address the needs of children in elementary school. With younger children, the consequences of failure have to do with self-esteem, approval by teachers and parents, etc. Educators can put so much emphasis on specific scores, school averages, etc. that they overwhelm children. Parents can overwhelm them by promising unrealistic rewards such as expensive trip. What if they don't make the goal? Will the whole family blame the child for canceling the family vacation? What if you loose your job, and you can't afford the trip even if the child accomplished the goal?

On the other hand, there are students who don't care about the ranking of their class or their school. Some of these children never have done well on tests. They can barely read the questions, and they feel there is no point in trying. It is easier to have a "don't care" attitude than to admit the truth. They will mark answers without even reading the questions then spend the rest of the time distracting others who are working.

Rewarding effort can help the child who has too much test anxiety and the one who refuses to try. This can be done in conjunction with programs which you might already be using for rewarding the class which does best.

Small rewards are given to every child at the end of each testing session if the teacher thinks she or he is trying. Of course, the teacher wants to reward everyone because he or she wants everyone to try. However, the whole plan fails if the child gets the reward without earning it.

The big question in the minds of the children is this: "How does the teacher know if I'm trying?" Tell them this is how you know if they are trying.

  1. You don't go too slowly. Remember, if you get stuck on one question, mark that lightly and move to another question. Come back to that question later if you have time. The next one might be easier for you. Be sure the number for the question matches the number for the answer.

  2. You don't go too fast. I know which ones of you work faster than others when you are really trying.

  3. If you finish before time is up, go back and check your answers.

  4. Don't bother anyone.

  5. If you do these four things, you will get a reward at the end of each session. If you miss out, you will have another chance in the next testing session.

  6. Remember! Don't go too slowly. Don't go too fast. Check your answers if there is time. Don't bother anyone. Do get a reward.

This plan will work only if the children feel you really are watching, and if they feel you will reward only the ones who earn it. This is non-threatening because those who aren't rewarded in the first session, can be rewarded in the second session which might be on the same day. Even if they don't score well, they will try harder and achieve better results than if they hadn't tried. Rewards should be simple and inexpensive, e. g. pencils, erasers, stickers, etc.

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