Test Anxiety Is Crippling Students. Giving Them a Breather Can Help.
It’s 9:30 in the morning when Anton enters my classroom, an hour after the morning bell signals that breakfast is over and the school day is beginning. He grunts something that resembles “Good Morning” and slams down into his chair, throwing his backpack on the floor and pulling his hood down as he puts his head on the desk. I resist the urge to tell him to walk in and try that again without slamming the door and join us on the carpet. My understanding of the outside factors and traumas Anton experiences before he even crosses into my classroom stops me.
In his brief nine years, Anton has experienced domestic violence and neglect, with both parents in and out of incarceration. Instead, I give him a little time and pass him his bag of calming strategies, nonverbally encouraging him to utilize one until he’s ready to join us. I wonder if he is going to be able to take our weekly formative assessment today, or if it will be another case of him rapidly clicking through the test simply to complete it.
I have often felt that I am either always preparing my students for a test or administering one
As we progress through the morning, my students are finishing up their post-lesson assessment on their laptops. I notice my student Kayla is on the verge of tears. I crouch down beside her to ask what the problem is. She tearfully explains that she scored a 4 out of 5 on the lesson quiz. I remind her that scores show mastery of the lesson, but she is devastated that she has not scored 100 percent. I try to honor her feelings while explaining that these scores help inform what we can continue to work on to grow. Kayla’s performance anxiety and pressure on herself to maintain perfection is something I can relate to. During “testing season,” I make sure to pay extra attention to her emotional state.
My district, Chicago Public Schools (CPS), like countless other districts across the country, requires a lot of high stakes testing. These tests are directly linked to school quality rating, funding, programming, and in more extreme cases, keeping the school doors open. I currently teach a second and third grade split classroom where my students take the NWEA MAP and CPS REACH performance tasks twice a year, TRC/Dibels Literacy Assessment three times a year and the PARCC in the spring. And every week there are required fluency- and standards-based assessments to get through too.
I have often felt that I am either always preparing my students for a test or administering one. While research has shown that between 25 to 40 percent of students experience test anxiety, I am aware of my own related anxiety as well. I stress over whether the hard work put into instruction and personalized learning pathways for each of my students will “pay off” in terms of their growth and achievement. As students hover over the submit button, I try to mask my own anxiousness over what their score will be and how it will reflect upon my own ability and effectiveness as a teacher.
Taking a Breather
If students are not having these basic needs met and traumas addressed outside of school, we must create a space within the school to address them
You are worth more than a score. This has become a mantra in my classroom. I make sure that my students realize that we do not all learn the same way, therefore we do not all perform the same way on exams. Until equitable testing practices and platforms are developed, there will always be those who are able to navigate these structures, perform well and showcase their learning—and there will be those who will “fall short” no matter how much effort they put forth. There will be students like Kayla, who battle with performance anxiety and the pressure of maintaining success, and students like Anton who are struggling to cope with trauma and stress outside of school.
A teacher colleague of mine, Dwayne Reed, introduced me to the expression “We must Maslow before we Bloom,” referring both to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and Bloom’s Taxonomy. In short, this translates to meeting the physiological, safety, love and belonging needs of students before we can meet their academic needs. Neighborhood violence, gang activity and poverty contribute to the high levels of trauma and stress that many of our students in CPS are facing. My school has even lost a student to gun violence. If students are not having these basic needs met and traumas addressed outside of school, we must create a space within the school to address them. It was this guiding principle that led to the conscious shifts we as a school have made to address the needs of our students through social-emotional learning.
Some of the changes seem simple. Teachers make sure that all students are greeted personally each day to make them feel welcomed, safe and acknowledged. Students take part in daily morning meetings in which they are given the space to share their current emotional state through activities such as “highs and lows” or “mood colors” should they choose. And in classrooms like mine, teachers engage students with a short focus activity involving breath or yoga. Regardless of the emotional state they came to school with, this time has become sacred, a way to set the tone for the day for myself and my students.
Each morning I use yoga, stretching or guided dance to refocus students and have them assimilate back into the classroom for the afternoon, primarily through activities on a platform called Adventure 2 Learning, which I refer to as “Netflix for classrooms” because it features curated videos related to both core subjects and mindfulness, social emotional learning and physical exercise.
I usually take a “temperature check” when my students come back from lunch and recess before choosing an activity. For example, if my students seem anxious or like they have a lot of extra energy to burn we might try a playful Yo Re Mi yoga themed song or a hip-hop dance video from Fitbound. If they are in a calmer state, we will engage in a guided breathing or meditation video to calm and center our focus for the afternoon.
I never hesitate to engage my students in additional breaks throughout the day as needed. I have found this practice to be especially impactful during testing periods where students are in need of calming, centering or energy burst activities in order to feel their best (and hopefully reduce test anxiety). In fact, choosing the activity we engage in has become tied into our Class Dojo incentive system within the classroom.
Over the past year, I have fully bought into addressing my students’ social-emotional needs because I have seen how it works. Anton, who has now moved on to fourth grade, has learned new ways to cope with his anger and anxiety. I have often observed him using a breathing strategy or reaching for a stress tool. Kayla, now in third grade, is one of my designated accountability leaders, who reminds me to carve out time for our breathing or yoga. She still is working on her anxiety, but feels more equipped to handle it with or without my support.
Even without prodding, my students often engage in calming practices or encourage each other to use the strategies they’ve learned throughout the day. And our overall approach to testing has shifted. Since implementing these strategies schoolwide, our performance has improved in terms of our CPS ranking.
Students now realize that having anxiety around their performance is normal and natural. However, we do not have to let the anxiety consume us to the point where it impacts our performance. It’s OK to ask for a break or for help if we feel overwhelmed, to use a strategy to calm down and to support each other during tense moments. Equipping my students with coping skills to address their social emotional needs has become the most important thing I teach and paves the way for their growth and success in all other areas.