Randy Sprick's Safe & Civil Schools – Practical Solutions, Positive Results!

Winter 2010

Beating the Test Stress

By Randy Sprick

We're heading into "test season," that period in late winter and early spring when tens of thousands of students in grades 3-12 face the annual ritual of state testing. It's a time when many students, feeling the tension so prevalent during "test season," tend to act out. In this age of accountability, pressure to do well on tests affects faculty and staff as well. Sometimes teacher tension gets inadvertently passed on to students, adding to the anxiety they are already feeling.

Looking at testing in a different light can help alleviate tension all around, thus curbing student tendencies for mischief.

As the teacher, you want to avoid viewing the actual test day as the pinnacle of the cycle. Take a look at this graph.

Graph showing instructional intensity at peak.

In this scenario, instruction starts off slowly and steadily on the first day of school. As the day of the test nears, instructional intensity increases exponentially and then falls off dramatically the day after testing is complete. The remaining weeks (or months in some states) can be so laid back that it may feel as if the school year is over. In the days before the test, tension builds proportionately, increasing the likelihood of misbehavior. After the test, the target has disappeared, leaving behind a lack of structure and a relaxation of productivity that can contribute to increases in acting-out behaviors. Another problem here is the level of intensity—the pinnacle is not only sharp, but high as well. This reflects a level of anxiety so high that, for some children, it can actually generate the physical symptoms of illness.

A more effective way to approach testing is illustrated below.

Graph showing instructional intensity at plateau.

Here, as in the previous situation, instruction begins slowly at the beginning of the school year, but increases faster, building to the apex way before the day of testing. This allows for a period of sustained productivity in the days leading to the test, which buttresses student confidence, thereby alleviating last-minute stress. The dip in the graph represents a period of relaxation in the day or two preceding the test itself. This helps students feel more rested and relaxed on the day of the test. After testing, it is okay to relax for a day or two, but bring your instructional and behavioral expectations back up to where they were before testing and maintain that level until the school year is over. Notice also that the line never reaches the height it does in the previous graph. Thus, students display enthusiasm and energy, but never reach the level of anxiety evident in the previous example.

The trick is to keep a balanced level of productivity—too much instructional pressure can lead to unnecessary stress, too little can lead to idle minds. Either extreme contributes to student misbehavior. Instead, keep your students productively occupied and help them view testing as an opportunity to display what they've learned, rather than focusing solely on the score ("What have I accomplished in this class?" rather than "Did I pass?") Any test should be viewed as a method to consolidate what students have learned and a mechanism to uncover where they need to fill in the gaps.

To fight the tension that students may be feeling and to keep misbehavior in hand, remember to:

Prepare Them Well

In general, you should always know exactly what you want your students to know or be able to do as a result of the lessons you teach and the tasks you assign. So, plan your lessons by thinking about how you will evaluate students' mastery of the content. For example, before you begin a two-week science unit, create the test students will take at the end of the unit (or review it, if you are using a published test that goes with your textbook). By creating or looking at the test first, you will know the key vocabulary words, concepts, and operations that you need to directly teach during instruction. You can then make sure that any tasks you assign will help students practice those vocabulary words, concepts, and operations.

This view of evaluation applies to state testing as well. Familiarize yourself with the concepts and skills evaluated on the tests and prepare your students to master them. For those who question this as "teaching to the test," consider that a test should cover the material you want students to learn, and so should your instruction. In fact, a clear and consistent match between instruction and evaluation is a hallmark of effective teaching.

Rally Student Enthusiasm

Try using the motivational tactics of successful athletic coaches—give your students a pep talk. For example, a few days before the test, you might say something like: "Class, in two days we start testing. You've been working hard this year, and I know that you can do well! I want you to do three things today and tomorrow that will really help you. First, work to pay attention in class. We are going to review the essential information you need to understand, so keep your attention focused. Second, any time you don't understand something we are reviewing, ask about it. There are no stupid questions. If you aren't sure how to ask a question, just ask me to give more information or to explain the idea again in a different way. Third, tomorrow night I want you to do something that takes your mind off the test for a bit—read a good book or watch a movie. Get to bed early and come to school rested, relaxed, and ready for the test!"

Revisit Essential Elements of Your Management Plan

To rein in misbehavior caused by test stress, revisit these essential elements:

Student preoccupied with an upcoming test may need occasional reminders of your expectations, so take time to teach those lessons again. Make sure your ratio of interactions is at least 3 positive to 1 negative. Consider increasing that ratio during test stress times. Making calm corrections mitigates escalation of student behavior. It is even more critical during those times when students (and teachers) are under stress.

Tying It All Together

By using these strategies, you can help your students deal with the stress caused by testing. Less stress ensures a calmer, more civil classroom and, at the same time, increases the probability that your students will succeed on these tests.