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Supporting Students through Testing Anxiety

April 4, 2022 | By Dan Golub

If you want to start a lively debate on education – bring up standardized testing! But even as a teacher who felt that these high-stakes tests exacerbated inequities and provided little actionable instructional data, I still wanted my students to do well on the tests. In fact, I felt it would be a disservice to not support my students and their test-taking skills and mindset.

Here’s my assumption: it’s possible to both empower students to do well on tests and not “teach to the test.” There, I said it! Try out some of these strategies and see for yourself!

  • Take the test yourself. Ughhh, right?!?! But seriously, do it! This is the best way to empathize with your students and understand the various content demands of the test. Almost all states have sample tests online that you can use. A few states participate in consortiums where you can find more sample state tests: PARCC and SBAC
  • Regularly expose your students to questions similar to those on the test. Throughout the year, embed the online sample test questions into your curriculum, and design your own questions with similar formatting or question styles. Don’t assume your curriculum already does this! Include these problems in Do Nows, group work, problem sets, homework, etc. When students solve these problems, celebrate them! Be transparent about your intentions as a teacher (for example, you can write #7 is a sample state test question). Break down that anxiety by saying – hey, you just solved a problem just like the one on the state test!
  • Check for Understanding with an Error Analysis problem. This builds test-taking skills and student metacognition. For example, instead of giving students a multiple choice question, give them sample work on a multiple choice question, and have students identify the error made in the sample work.
  • Have students develop their own questions. This sort of role-reversal puts students in the mindset of a test designer: they will create distractor answers and this type of thinking will ultimately lead to improved test-taking skills!
  • Reaffirm students’ classroom identities. Praise effort over ability and never equate test scores with ability or intelligence.
  • Reduce Stereotype Threat by creating a welcoming testing environment. Because anxiety increases for many students during testing, make shifts in the environment to decrease this stress. This might mean playing gentle music or running an essential oils diffuser (now it feels like a spa!). Consider policies like having students grade their own papers and allowing them to submit corrections.