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 OK 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 you've learned and a mechanism to uncover where you need to fill in the gaps.

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


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PASS—Help for Your Most Challenging Students

Working with children with severe emotional disturbances in the general education setting can be a challenging, stressful, and emotionally draining experience for a teacher. But it doesn't have to be. PASS is a program that can change all that!

PASS, Positive Approach to Student Success, is a comprehensive, multilevel program that serves both general education students whose behavior problems have branded them as at-risk and those students who have been identified by special education as Emotionally or Behaviorally Disordered (EBD).

Schools that have implemented PASS find that it works well. For instance, in Katy Independent School District, almost half of the students previously retained in self-contained classrooms successfully integrated into mainstream classrooms after only one year of PASS.

To find out more about a PASS implementation, we spoke to Trish Reynolds, Behavior Specialist for Katy ISD. Ms. Reynolds has been involved with Katy's PASS program from its beginnings and knows the program well. She shares with us her valuable experiences and insights. Read the interview...