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Keep Stress Down, Motivation Up During Standardized Tests

How to reduce test anxiety without understating the importance of achievement

By Margie Markarian
  • Grades: 6–8, 9–12

If you're like most teachers, you walk a fine line between telling students, "This is a high-stakes test that matters" and "Don't worry, just do the best you can." You want students to be motivated to do well but don't want them to feel stressed out. To find out how different school communities manage to keep stress levels down and motivation high, Scholastic gathered ideas from teachers across the country. The following suggestions may help during the next round of standardized testing at your school.

 

Morning news bulletins

At the E.L. Wright Middle School in Columbia, South Carolina, faculty and staff set a helpful, encouraging tone on the school's televised morning news broadcast. During the month of May, a portion of the news program on WPRN (Wright Path, Right Now) is focused on test tips.

"Administrators begin by explaining the importance of testing and then giving a testing tip," reports Kechia Williams, a sixth grade language arts/reading teacher at the school. Recent tips include "Read the entire question and each answer choice before choosing a response," "Remember to pace yourself. Do not spend too much time on any one question," and ‘If you are unsure of the correct answer, cross out the choices you are sure are incorrect. Then take your best guess."

"Test-taking tips are also shown throughout the day on PowerPoint slides our technology specialist creates," adds Williams. "The tips are similar but a bit more elaborate with actual examples from each subject area."

Offer breakfast and stock up on snacks

To make sure students are well-nourished and stay alert through the test, many schools make arrangements to offer breakfast and/or healthy snacks like granola bars, graham crackers, popcorn, juice, and energy drinks. Funding comes from the school district itself, the PTO, or individual donations.

Another test-day strategy: letting test-takers chew gum. Students appreciate the novelty of having permission to do something that's typically discouraged and "the simple movement of chewing especially calms students with ADD/ADHD and helps kinesthetic learners focus," says Jennifer Chase Chandler, a reading teacher and literacy specialist at White Station Middle School in Memphis. She recommends peppermint because of its reputation for aiding concentration and mental clarity.

Door prizes and homework passes

At the Gilbert Learning Center, an alternative middle school for at-risk students, in Gilbert, Arizona, attendance on each day of testing is critical to success so the school offers incentives. "There are door prizes of snacks, movies passes, and music-in-class passes to encourage students to attend," says Denise Mueller, who teaches language arts to seventh- and eighth-graders. "The administration and teachers let students know of these attendance prizes through posters, daily announcements in all classes, reminders in homeroom, and in our school's daily meetings in the gym. In my own classroom, I also have a daily drawing for a homework pass."

Adapt the test environment

Chandler takes the edge off test day by creating a supportive, home-like atmosphere through the use of aroma therapy, music, lighting, and desk re-arrangement. "I actually use scented plug-ins year round, usually something clean-smelling at the beginning of the year, apple-cinnamon around Thanksgiving and citrus or mint in the spring during review and test periods," says Chandler. As far as music goes, "I play calming classical music to encourage soft-speaking when kids come in and get settled for the test."

When it comes to desk setup, Chandler arranges desks so that they are far apart, giving students plenty of room on all sides. She also makes sure that students are not facing each other and that she has room to walk around and monitor progress without distracting anyone.

"I can see who is finished, but the students aren't aware if they are the last ones done. This keeps some from rushing through," says Chandler, who also uses floor lamps and table lamps to enhance the at-home feel. "The encouraging environment is a huge motivator...My kids love the different feel to the room. Instead of becoming antsy during test-taking time, they begin to relax."

Supportive scheduling and proctoring

At Carey Junior High School, in Cheyenne, Wyoming, the administration opts for several half-days of testing instead of full days because it's less overwhelming. "We also have students test in the classroom of the teacher who teaches the subject" because it eases anxieties to be in the presence of the teacher who knows the subject matter and has guided the prep work, reports Amy Enzi, a ninth-grade English teacher.

At White Station Middle School, administrators schedule in student breaks as a reward for diligence on the test. "They also direct teachers to refrain from assigning homework during test days so that students can relax after school and get to bed early each night," says Chandler. In addition, "they keep an even tone when talking over the intercom and giving inspirational quotes and other words of support during testing."

Overall, most teachers recommend motivating students by being upfront about the role standardized tests play in their personal education and the school's reputation.

Martha Ray, a teacher at Southern Wells Junior/Senior High School in Poneto, Indiana points out: "I try to show students that the state sees the test as a report card for the whole school and we want to see a good comparison with the other schools in our state."

Chandler sums it up this way for her students, "Here is our chance to show off what we've learned this year...I explain that the test is to prove to the rest of the world how much they've grown as thinkers and how excited I am to see what they can do...It has worked every time. As long as students know their teacher is on their side and believes in them, they will take the test seriously and with confidence."

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