July 3, 2015 in Stress and Coping
Stress related to test taking: The impact on children
By: Gina Zuccolo, Psy.D.

School, quizzes, tests, after-school activities, homework…the list of children’s responsibilities is vast when it comes to their education and development. These tasks in themselves can be stressful for children, but what happens for children when standardized testing is thrown in the mix? In the state of Florida, the FCAT has been the most recognized name as the required standardized testing implemented via the No Child Left Behind legislation. Beginning in the 2014-2015 school year, the state began administering the FSA to replace the FCAT. Although there is a different acronym, a similar principle exists. For example, the standardized testing impacts not only evaluation of student performance and passage to the next grade (in certain circumstances), but also impacts teacher evaluations and overall school performance evaluations. With this increased focus on standardized testing performance, how are children coping with the pressure?  

Test anxiety can present itself in numerous ways, including physical symptoms such as headaches, stomachaches, nausea, panic attacks, rapid heart rate, etc. Children can show emotional symptoms of test anxiety, including increased anger and tantrums, fear, disappointment resulting in decreased self-esteem, and feelings of helplessness. Also, children may exhibit difficulties in concentrating and focusing when faced with testing situations.
According to a recent study focused on elementary school students, researchers found that children experience significantly more overall test anxiety when taking standardized “high stakes” tests than when taking regular classroom tests (Segool et al., 2013). This heightened test anxiety when taking standardized tests was found to negatively impact thought processes and increase somatic complaints, such as stomachaches and headaches for the children.
So what are some possible reasons for these findings? Perhaps the overall focus on the importance of the standardized testing is stressing out children. Pressure to achieve may be impacting students’ abilities to believe that they will succeed, thus leading to an increased fear of failure. External pressure from teachers and parents, even if unintended, may also impact a student’s ability to perform at their potential. Despite preparation and focus on test material and content throughout the year, perhaps the students feel unprepared on the days of the testing and become overwhelmed with the amount of testing that needs to be completed. Additionally, if the student has performed poorly on standardized tests in the past, it is possible that their expectation to perform poorly is impacting their actual test-taking abilities.
Since it appears that standardized testing will be sticking around, what can parents do to help decrease the potential for test-anxiety symptoms in their children? Helping children prepare for the upcoming testing can help minimize the impact of the anxiety symptoms. For example, children may be able to take practice exams or review content areas to familiarize themselves with the testing format. Increasing good test-taking skills will also be helpful for children, including fully reading directions, eliminating answers they know are incorrect, and marking difficult questions to come back to before completing the test are some options to increase test-taking skills. A positive outlook and relaxation can also go a long way to help children feel more in control of their feelings and reduce the pressure of standardized tests. Deep breathing is one example of a relaxation technique to help increase calmness and clarity. Support and encouragement are always important and significant ways to help increase children’s self-esteem. So parents, remember – relaxation and breathing can go a long way to increase a sense of calm. Let’s help our children apply some daily relaxation skills to combat test-anxiety and decrease the pressure of the standardized tests!
Research cited:
Segool, N. L., et al. (2013). Heightened test anxiety among young children: Elementary school students’ anxious responses to high-stakes testing. Psychology in the Schools, 50(5), 489–499.
For more information regarding test anxiety, please visit