Take the Stress Out of Standardized Tests

High-stakes standardized tests can be intimidating. Here’s how you can help your students manage pre-test stress.

Male high school teacher helping his students in his classroom

by NEA Member Benefits

Meg Anderson, a fourth-grade teacher outside of Green Bay, Wisconsin, isn’t thrilled that her young students have to take high-stakes standardized tests (the results of which are likely to end up on the front page of the newspaper). But she does her best to make the tests feel less intimidating.

“How we as teachers choose to handle this can completely affect how students perceive the test,” says Anderson. “If we project our own anxieties and fear, they’re going to pick up on that. But, if we can teach our kids to be thinkers and workers who are willing to dig in and tackle a problem—and when they finish, they know they’ve done their best—that’s what you celebrate.”

You can’t rid the world of standardized tests, but you can help eliminate pre-test stress in your students. Here’s how.

Frame testing as an opportunity

Some students think of any assessment as a trap—a no-win situation that offers them only multiple chances to make mistakes. But teachers can flip this thinking by explaining that tests are also an opportunity for students to show off their learning.

“That’s what I do for any assessment,” says Anderson. “I don’t even call it a test. It’s ‘show-what-you-know.’ It’s that thrill of a challenge.”

And instead of filling students’ heads with images of state bureaucrats coldly evaluating their open response answers, you can make the test feel more personal and manageable by keeping the conversation close to home. “I like to tell my students that this is a wonderful opportunity to show their parents and me all that they learned this year,” says Melissa Kozerski, a third-grade teacher outside of Chicago.

Enlist parents

“A week before we have our assessments, I send home a very official and secretive looking envelope titled ‘parent homework,’” says Kozerski. Inside the sealed envelope? A note asking parents to write letters of encouragement to their child.

Before the test, Kozerski passes out the parent letters to her students. Reading a special note written by their parents causes the students to “instantly relax,” she says.

Make the format familiar

No teacher wants to drill his or her students with hours and hours of uninspired teach-to-the-test worksheets. But there can be some value in showing students what the test will look like—both to ensure that the test feels familiar to them, and to clear up any confusion.

(Remember the first time you saw SAT-style verbal analogies? If it was during the actual SAT test, you probably do—and not fondly!)

When Jamie Cameron, a fifth-grade teacher in Hillsborough, New Jersey, was preparing her students to take the PARCC for the first time, she modified her own assessments to match the standardized test. She also let students try out the features of the new online test on their own.

“It’s not teaching to the test, but showing it to them so it doesn’t feel completely foreign,” Cameron says. “One of the good things they did with PARCC is give us websites where kids can go and practice ahead of time—this is what it’s like to drag-and-drop, this is what your screen is going to look like. I think for the teachers that did that, the students felt more at ease on the day of the test.”

Strike a pose

Jennifer Battista, a sixth-grade teacher in Baltimore County, Maryland, has led students in two- or three-minute yoga sessions before standardized tests. She searches for brief routines on YouTube, and the kids love stretching out into poses like warrior, triangle and chair.

“It just kind of relaxes them, and they feel good about it,” Battista says. “It’s a couple of deep breaths, a little bit of stretching, a pose or two, and then you get serious.”

Don’t let them see you sweat

As the adults in the room, teachers send signals to their students about whether standardized tests are big and scary, or just another part of school. So quit biting your nails!

“Stay positive,” says Kozerski. “Your students feed off of your calm energy. When they see the teacher is taking the assessments in stride, they will follow your lead.”

“When you look at little kids in baseball games, and how the adults conduct themselves and the kids pick up on that, it’s the same thing,” says Anderson. “We can show what we value.”

“Kids are going to have this kind of experience in the future,” Anderson adds. “They’re going to have tests, they’re going to have job interviews, they’re going to have stressful situations. We can project our own worries onto them, or we can help them learn how to handle it in a positive, productive way.”