Test Anxiety: I Know I Will Fail, And Other Lies

Overview of the Problem

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Test anxiety is on the rise for students in elementary school (Segool, Carlson, Goforth, von der Embse, & Barterian, 2013a) through college; recent studies reveal that in universities in the United States and Europe, students are experiencing severe anxiety when it comes to taking tests (Hyseni Duraku, 2017).

High school students today are faced with insurmountable pressures from parents and school districts to achieve (Embse & Hasson, 2012). Pressure may stem from parents who wish for their children to excel in high school to improve college chances. Students receive pressure either directly or indirectly from teachers whose job performance is based upon student achievement (Embse & Hasson, 2012).

The Problem and its Origins

Students who attend magnet, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) certified schools are under the most pressure from parents. These are students who have either tested gifted, or they have been waivered into honors and AP level classes by their parents, or well-intentioned teachers and counselors. Some gifted students are too anxious to stand the heat of the STEM program kitchen (Zeidner & Schleyer, 1999); consequently, they sabotage themselves, get poor grades, or at least average grades so they will not have to compete under such pressure.

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Many students feel they have no shot at a good college if they do not graduate with a STEM, magnet, or International Baccalaureates diploma seal. This is a not entirely true, colleges and universities simply want to see that students have been challenged (Rubenstone, 2007). For example, most magnet schools will not accept new students into the program after 9th grade, however, if a student takes honors and AP courses, they are taking classes that offer the most rigor available to them, this is what selective schools want to see (Abrams, n.d.), not necessarily a special emblem.

For students who have been pressured to remain in these programs, some are only able to keep up with the rigor with hours of tutoring. For anxious children, putting in weekend hours with a tutor studying, living, breathing, sleeping to test prep, may be preparing the child for test anxiety (Huberty, 2010).

Parents and Other Adults Who Contribute to the Problem

The number of adolescent high school students taking some form of anxiety medication is on the rise, and so is the number abusing these same drugs (“Teens Prescribed Anti-Anxiety or Sleep Meds More Likely to Abuse Those Drugs,” n.d.). The type of pressure these students feel originated long before high school, probably in pre-k when parents, convinced their children were gifted, made sure their children were tested and vetted into gifted programs through their elementary schools. By the time children like this reach middle school, they are burned out. The form of anxiety these children experience is largely from external sources (“Math Anxiety; ‘Intergenerational Effects of Parents’ Math Anxiety on Children’s Math Anxiety and Achievement’ – Opposing Viewpoints in Context,” n.d.), and if the child is already prewired for anxiety, then these forces make it even worse.

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Parents do not often realize that conversations with their children about success can sometimes cause more damage than good (Niditch & Varela, 2012). For a teenager, a pep talk about success can be easily translated into, rather than, “Son, we want you to be successful because we love you,” to “Son, you are a failure, and we are disappointed in you.”

The dialogues parents have with their children follow them into the testing environment, increasing natural anxiety and become obstacles to that child doing his or her best. Too much pressure applied on a child preparing to take a high stakes test is like setting a pressure cooker with a faulty release valve.

A Broader View of the Problem

While it is true, anxiety is a part of life, for some individuals, anxiety can be crippling, causing the individual to freeze up mentally, and avoid doing tasks or other daily activities that are important, or even critical for work or school. Test anxiety is very common for persons who are already prone to anxiety (Huberty, 2010). Individuals who become extremely anxious over taking a test, generally experience some form of anxiety relative to other performance related issues such as public speaking or meeting project deadlines.

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Just like stress, there is good anxiety and there is bad anxiety. Anxiety is a form of stress, and it can either spur an individual forward, or it can cause that individual to freeze, incapable of thought or action. Some extreme cases of anxiety manifest in not only nervousness, but physiological symptoms (Segool, Carlson, Goforth, von der Embse, & Barterian, 2013).

  • Nausea
  • Trembling
  • Sweating
  • Dizziness
  • Crying
  • Headache
  • Blindness

Anyone who cares about the outcome of a test or other project that is important to academics or work, experiences some level of performance anxiety (Huberty, 2010), which is all test anxiety really is and is considered situational anxiety. When symptoms are as extreme as those mentioned above, there may be underlying problems. It could be that the individual is a high achiever who needs to obtain a certain score in order to reach a goal, such as getting into the medical school of choice. This individual is able to manage levels of anxiety on any given day through increasing activity, taking mental breaks, deep breathing, or meditating (von der Embse, Barterian, & Segool, 2013). These all help. However, when sitting in test cubical or at a desk with pencil and answer bubbles, claustrophobia can suddenly take over. When sitting for a high- stakes test such as the ACT, SAT, LSAT, GRE, MCAT, etc., taking a break, other than a mental break while seated, is not an option. Because these tests are timed, and the proctor is updating the time on a whiteboard or digital device, anxiety is only increased.

Again, to iterate, test anxiety is normal. The above symptoms can occur in individuals who ordinarily do not feel overwhelmed easily. There can be mitigating circumstances, such as cramming in all night study sessions, caffeine overload, dehydration, or the feeling that this test is all or nothing.

For the individual experiencing the “all or nothing” form of anxiety, the feelings may stem from other factors in that person’s life. For example, if this individual’s perception is that his or her entire future is reliant upon getting into one school, or achieving a certain score, these feelings can become overwhelming.

Test Anxiety Does Not Graduate High School

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Test anxiety does not just happen with elementary through high school students, nor does it end there. According to (Hyseni Duraku, 2017), there is an increasing number of university students who suffer from test anxiety. One of the reasons for such stress is that many students feel they stuck on the path defined by their majors (Hyseni Duraku, 2017), and may feel boxed in.

To illustrate, let us look at a hypothetical case:

Jason is a 22-year-old college graduate. He has planned nearly his whole life to go to law school. He has just graduated from prelaw, and that is all he knows. He is beginning to regret he did not just major in liberal arts or business because he feels entirely unprepared for any other line of work. His friends tease him; constantly telling him he can always be a paralegal. Jason’s grades in prelaw were acceptable, but not stellar. He must score in the upper 90th percentile on the LSAT if he has any chance of getting into a state program, especially in his state. He has researched some smaller and private law schools, some of these are easier to get into, but they are also either too far away, or too expensive.

Jason has planned his whole life to go to law school at the large state university that is only four hours from his parent’s home. If his scores are too low, all his plans will be thwarted; he feels trapped.

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In a sense, Jason is trapped. This is also a trap of his own making. Jason has created a scenario in which, for him, there is no way out. If things do not turn out the way Jason has scripted for himself, he will feel he has failed. For Jason, it is all or nothing.

For Jason, his anxiety, though related to a particular situation, is not situational anxiety. Jason has done this to himself his entire life. His parents first noticed this about him when he was in middle school. If he could not get the position on the football team he wanted, he did not want to play. If he did not get the project he wanted in science class, he did not want to do one at all.

In each of these types of situations, Jason’s parents encouraged him, sometimes made him play on the team anyhow, and of course refusing a class project was not an option. Based upon Jason’s family history, his relationship with his family, and his own medical history there is no organic or hereditary issue related to his anxiety.

If Jason was in counseling, he and his therapist could investigate the underlying causes of his anxiety (Salend, 2011), and more importantly, why he feels the need to box himself in. The first thing the counselor would want to determine is Jason’s level of awareness regarding his actions. It may well be that Jason does not realize he does this, and if this has ever been pointed out to him by friends, family, or even instructors, he has refused to acknowledge the validity of their claims.

Jason feels he must pass or fail, there is no in between. In his current situation, Jason feels that to get an acceptable grade to any school other than the one he feels he must attend, is a failure. Jason’s situation and his form of anxiety is based upon a script Jason has devised for himself.

When individuals live a scripted life, they do not go off-book, to use an acting term. They do not know who they are, or what their choices are if they do. It is a means of maintaining a level of control. People such as Jason would do very well in the military, where even though there are choices, the environment is one that is based upon incredible discipline and routine.

Jason has lied to himself in that he feels he cannot do anything else but be a lawyer, but the only way he wants to become a lawyer is through education in one school. This kind of scripting usually ends up in failure. A good therapist would want to know how much Jason really does want to go to law school, for all the evidence points to the contrary.

There are many Jason out there in colleges, universities and graduate schools who were placed on this path, that does not diverge, by well-meaning, but demanding parents, teachers, and school districts (Niditch & Varela, 2012). The problem is trickle-down, and for someone like Jason, the odds of him actually finishing law school are slim. He has not learned to make choices because his parents raised him with the narrow view of Achieve or Bust.

Conclusion and Recommendations

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Children, adolescents, and young adults who suffer test anxiety face each day on the edge, for they are not just anxious over tests. Nevertheless, in their minds, a test reveals whether they are a failure or success. They are afraid the test will reveal that the lie they tell themselves is true.

For parents, teachers, and counselors there are interventions that can be implemented to mediate test anxiety for school-aged children (Salend, 2011). Teachers can create a better testing environment for students (Yeo, Goh, Liem, & D, 2016), and also realize their demeanor regarding the test has a significant impact on students. There are many things that can go wrong on test days such as technology issues, interruptions, or even disruptive students. How teachers manage these issues will make a difference in how these things affect the students.

For the child or teen who suffers extreme test anxiety, parents should consider counseling. A counselor can teach children and teens breathing exercises, how to change their scripted thinking, and strategies specific to test days. Learning to mediate anxiety through cognitive and behavioral interventions should be the first step towards managing anxiety, and is a healthy, and safe alternative to anxiety medications.

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