Testing Anxiety Like I’ve Never Seen

“Is it called the mock test because you are mocking us?” joked Hugo, one of my fourth grade charges on the day of the faux test.


“That’s a great question. How can we find out more about that,” came one of my usual responses to great questions. About 74 minutes later the mood wasn’t so jolly. 

Last week was our designated time to expose students to the practice ELA test. We don’t want them being in this situation for the first time on the day of the actual test. We also analyze their practice tests and use the information to determine how we’ll support them in getting ready to show what they know and can do in the unusual formats of multiple choice answers and thinking about reading without the benefit of conversation. They all knew that this was not the state test. I thought I had discussed it with an appropriate amount of nonchalance. I thought they’d just get it done and then we’d move on with our day. I thought wrong.

After the test was over I walked Mandy to a quiet and comfortable easy chair in the office, where she could more peacefully nurse a splitting headache. I spent as long as I could rubbing her temples and having her visualize the pain dripping out of her skull. “It’s a purplish-blue liquid,” she told me, “about enough to fill a small Poland Spring bottle.” The next day she told me with her characteristic self-awareness, “I’m pretty sure it was a stress response.”

I returned to the classroom to find Tom (student names have been changed to protect their privacy in this delicate arena) lying in the space next to the peace corner, which was currently occupied by Sam. Both were facing the wall in a fetal position. Catatonic in a chair next to them was Jane, who “just need[ed] a small nap.” Ronesha was already asleep at her desk, still gripping a number two pencil. Over in a small separate area we use for small groups or quieter work was Meadow, whose efforts to control her crying were leading to hyperventilation.

I made a quick list in my mind about the order in which to engage with all of this. I started with Meadow. She managed through gulps of air to tell me she didn’t finish. “I’m gasp pretty sure gasp that’s gasp why I’m gasp upset.” We worked on some breathing together. I thought of a lot of things to tell her- the test was far too long for many kids to finish last year and some of those who didn’t finish scored quite well (not really the point), now that we knew it was hard to finish, we could work on strategies to read and think faster (not actually how I want to frame reading right now), you are so great (might seem sort of hollow given how she’s feeling about herself).

I just put my arms around her tight, tense little shoulders and said, “keep breathing. Imagine a nice, warm glow coming in to loosen up your shoulders. We can talk about this later. I have some ideas.” She nodded and I walked toward the next weeping nine-year-old.

If this is how they reacted to the mock test, how can I use the next few weeks to give them strategies to be calm and confident during the actual test? Most of these students are not having enormous pressure put on them by parents (some are, but not Meadow, for example). Our school is certainly not placing emphasis on test scores as a mark of achievement, over the work that they do in class for the other 177 days of the school year. Unlike most NYC 4th graders, our students won’t need to apply to middle school (provided they want to stay in our school), and therefore don’t have the same competitive need to score well. (Yes, rest-of-the-country, NYC 5th graders have to APPLY to PUBLIC middle schools, many of which use the 4th grade test as part of their admission criteria. How do “4th grade” and “admission criteria” even go in the same sentence?) So where is this insane anxiety coming from? It seems much worse than I’ve seen in 16 years as an educator. Is it just in the air these days for kids, much as it is for teachers? I’m remembering this T-shirt a lot of my friends had in the 70’s: War is not healthy for children and other living things. I can’t help wanting to revive the folksy approach to the radically held view- You might think war is the only way to solve the problem at hand, but surely you must understand that IT’S NOT GOOD FOR THE VERY PEOPLE IT’S SUPPOSED TO BE BENEFITING.

Please let me know if you have any ideas about how to alleviate testing anxiety, any strategies that have worked for you or your students, or any words of wisdom on the matter.


6 thoughts on “Testing Anxiety Like I’ve Never Seen

  1. Yeah, Stephanie, you’re blogging again! Love the layout! Of course, I’m sorry that it’s about testing, which I’m struggling with, too, as test prep season seems to be starting earlier than ever this year. I’ve got a middle school using New York Ready practice tests, which are insanely hard. Keats and Dickens in 7th grade, with questions that require deconstruction in and of themselves. (And I’ll let you imagine how the 7th graders reacted to a P.J. Woodhouse excerpt title “Right Ho, Jeeves”.) I’ve got a post coming up soon, too, but one thing that seems to be working is using the practice test passages as group work, with kids sharing what they think they answer is, explaining why they thought that and then discussing it. (Think the Circle of Talkingness does test prep.) Good luck! And glad I found you!

    • Hey Vicki!
      Nice to hear from you! I’m only doing a little bit about testing…I have a lot of other things that are more happily occupying my attention, thank goodness. I just had to write about it that day.
      But check in some more! I’m trying to keep a more consistent practice (with people like you as models!!)
      I loved the elephant in the room, by the way.

      Hope to see you soon,

  2. Stephanie, this is all so upsetting to me. If your kids in a gifted program are so stressed out by the test, imagine what it’s like for a group of 4th graders in a school in East New York. It IS child abuse and I hope that the anti-high stakes testing movement grows.

    • Yeah, it’s really the stakes that are the worst part. Why do they have to think so much of their lives depend on a 4th grade test? Though it was loooong ago, I remember not really caring about standardized tests in elementary school.

  3. Hi Stephanie! This is such a beautiful piece about such a traumatic time. It’s such a shame that your teaching energies and your students’ emotional stores are depleted by such distress and anxiety.

    • I’m hoping their resilience and our lack of emphasizing tests as a true measure of what they know and can do will help get us back into our fun-loving frame of learning!
      So nice to hear from you, BTW!

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