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Dealing with Test Anxiety vs Dealing with “Evaluative Situations”

July 3, 2019

A few days ago, as NY students entered the Regents gauntlet, the NYTimes health section featured an article by Dr. Perri Klass titled “Helping Students with Test Anxiety”. The article offered several insights on the phenomenon, ultimately suggesting that the best way to help students avoid test anxiety is to help them develop self-awareness:

Programs in schools that increase students’ understanding of emotions can be very valuable, she (Daniela Raccanello, a developmental and educational psychologist in the department of human sciences at the University of Verona, Italy) said, and can help promote positive emotions and decrease negative ones. Through one such project, she said, Italian students learn to understand their emotions; though the project focuses on traumatic events such as earthquakes, it offers children coping strategies that may help in other stressful situations.

The article also noted that test anxiety is related to our culture that overemphasizes the importance of tests. Quoting Shannon Brady, an assistant professor of psychology at Wake Forest University, Dr. Klass writes:

“It’s important for us as a culture to stop framing tests as inherently negative,” Dr. Brady said. Parents need to help their children get away from what she called “contingent self-esteem,” the sense that they won’t be loved or valued if they don’t do well.

We tend to celebrate children for good grades and test scores, but it’s important to reinforce that “you are valued for a number of things and even if you have a bad day in one of those domains, you are still a person of worth,” Dr. Brady said.

Easy for Dr. Klass to write, but as she notes near the end of the article, the practical reality today is that teachers as well as students feel intense pressure as a result of the over-emphasis on standardized test scores. Quoting Nathaniel von der Embse, an assistant professor of school psychology at the University of South Florida, who was the first author on a 30-year review of test anxiety published in 2018, Dr. Klass writes:

Dr. von der Embse said that he had seen a resurgence of interest in the question of anxiety around high-stakes testing over the past 12 years, particularly around the No Child Left Behind legislation. “We really can’t talk about test anxiety without talking about environment and particularly teacher stress,” Dr. von der Embse said. Many schools use student test scores to evaluate teachers, he said, and this can create a high stress environment in which the teachers’ stress is communicated to the students. “You might be able to equip your child with individual strategies for handling stress, but if the school is not coordinating their messaging around testing and supporting their teachers, it’s going to be a stressful environment.”

But while Dr. von der Erbse sees the test regimen driven by NCLB as exacerbating test anxiety, he see the opt out movement as wrong headed. Why?

But Dr. von der Embse does not believe in parents opting out of the tests. “We face evaluative situations throughout our entire lives, it’s best to learn how to handle them,” he said.

I agree that it is impractical and wrong to shield children from “evaluative situations”, because they will be faced throughout their lives. But in my life, apart from tests related to academics, the “evaluative situations” have to do with face-to-face interactions with other people, workplace performance, and work ethic in general. If it is important to help students learn “how to handle evaluative situations”, it strikes me that standardized tests are not the best means of accomplishing that end.

 

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