Notes From the School Psychologists

Carly and Kara

Test Anxiety

PSSAs and Keystone Assessments are fast approaching and that means one thing….the anxiety of staff, students, and parents is rising. Formal and informal means of assessments are a near daily part of a student’s educational life. All students experience anxiety from time to time when their performance is being evaluated. However, for some students, this test or performance anxiety is overwhelming and greatly impacts their performance.

What is normal?

A little nervousness or “butterflies” can be good. It may spring us into action and motivate us to reach higher levels of success. However, for some individuals, this normal anxiety is much more intense and can be so strong as to greatly affect concentration and performance. Test anxiety is a type of performance anxiety. This is a feeling that one may have when in a situation where performance really counts or the pressure is on to do well. More directly, test anxiety involves severe distress before, during, and/or after the exam which limits the ability to do your best work. Individuals may “blank” or “freeze” during tests. The anxiety can be so severe that individuals feel as though they may pass out or throw up.


Test anxiety is often caused from a fear of failure, poor test history, or lack of test preparation. A majority of students report being more stressed by tests and schoolwork than anything else in their lives. The American Test Anxiety Association estimates that up to 20 percent of students experience severe levels of test anxiety, while another 18 percent may have moderately high levels. Test anxiety seems to rise sharply in grades 2 through 4 and remain high through middle and high school.


Left untreated, performance anxiety may continue into adulthood to restrict career choices and lower quality of life. Fortunately, test anxiety can be managed. The large majority of students who have test anxiety are eager to perform well, but need a little assistance. Parents and educators working together with students when they sense a problem with test anxiety can ease the strain and help them cope with test time in order to reach success.

Ways to Reduce Test Anxiety - Relieve the Stress

  • Help students be as prepared as possible. Promote good study habits. Encourage students to study in smaller increments of time and over a few days in advance of the test. Teach helpful study techniques such as regular reviews of the material, looking up unknown words, using flashcards, taking practice tests, and using multimedia video clips. Create a system of reasonable expectations for studying and rewards.
  • Provide instruction on effective test-taking strategies. These include reading each question carefully, answering the test questions you know first and then going back to more difficult ones, using a process of elimination for tough multiple choice items, and using an outline for essay items.
  • Provide time and assist students in organizing their work daily. Encourage students to reread information, provide you a summary or paraphrase the information, make outlines, use graphic organizers to compare and contrast information, and ask you for help when they do not know how to complete an assignment.
  • Teach students to keep a positive attitude and be confident in their abilities. Students will be less anxious if they focus on positive thoughts and stay relaxed. For example, help students replace negative thoughts, such as “I will never pass the test” to “I have prepared for the test, will do my best, and have a good chance of passing.” Remind students that no matter what happens with any test, they are worthwhile individuals who is highly valued in your school.
  • Remind students to stay focused by concentrating on the test and not on other students. Encourage students to not talk to other students about the subject matter immediately prior to tests.
  • Have students use expressive writing to reduce negative thoughts. With this technique, students spend a short amount of time prior to a test writing down their thoughts and feelings about the test. This allows students to off-load their worries onto the page as a means of freeing up brain power for the test.
  • Teach relaxation exercises. Have students practice taking slow deep breaths while picturing a calm place, and consciously relaxing their muscles, one at a time. Encourage students to use this skill if feeling anxiety before or during the test.
  • Allow the student to take a short break when necessary.
  • Modify time constraints and instructions.
  • Permit the student to take the test in a different setting that is quieter and less distracting.
  • Encourage students to seek out help with test anxiety when needed. You as the teacher or a support person in the school such as the school counselor, school psychologist, or school social worker can serve as a useful resource in providing assistance.