What is Test Anxiety? Is it a disorder? A disability?
Test Anxiety is not a disability, but it is, in fact, disruptive to a person’s life. It is technically labeled as a condition. It is a form of anxiety, but it is not quite the same as globalized or general anxiety disorder. In fact, a little anxiety actually helps taking a test. It can help improve a score!
Students with Test Anxiety do not react the same as students with a little bit of anxiety or simple nervous tension. I have worked with many, many test anxious students. Many are very good students. In fact, statistically, anywhere from 25-40 percent of students are thought to be test anxious. The majority of the students who are crippled under testing conditions tend to be “gifted” or students with disabilities. I have noticed that a hallmark of the students I work with, who suffer from this condition, is that when they take tests-primarily exams or standardized tests with bubbles or multiple choices-they feel good. They almost always report that the test went well. Many feel it was easy. All, whom I work with, are very well prepared and knowledgeable. All have taken practice tests and have seen their scores rise in practice. They feel the actual test went even better than any practice test. Then when the scores come out, they are devastated because the scores are so below average. They do not score even close to what was expected.
Sometimes the SAT scores are hundreds of points below practice tests!
Does medication help? Well to be medicated, a student needs to have a medical diagnosis of anxiety. So this would entail a comprehensive evaluation by, typically, a psychiatrist. If such a diagnosis is made, I often suggest that a student adjust to the medication before taking any college entrance exams. It is a challenge to deal with anxiety. Does anxiety get special accommodations for testing? No, not usually. However, the College Board often allows for small groups for testing. This idea rationalizes that with less people in the room the testing conditions will be less distracting, and therefore, this could help the anxious student tester.
Regardless of how anxiety is being treated, under stressful conditions, it is almost impossible to prevent anxiety from happening. Will it be crippling? This is difficult to know. I always support any student by offering to discuss how best to handle this challenge. I often encourage learning as much as possible about test anxiety and to prepare to take the tests multiple times. I have found that multiple testing, in fact, wears out the student, and eventually, his or her best scores emerge. I try to work with the student to understand his or her particular anxiety; what it feels like for them.
We work to understand what physical and mental expressions of anxiety manifest when under pressure. Acknowledging any condition, instead of trying to dismiss it or act as if it is insignificant, is always better. We can then work on ways to function when the feelings or absence of feelings strikes. Many who are diagnosed do know when it is happening but feel impotent to combat it. We attempt to put in place methods that bring about a more focused mind and less emotional response. Often we try a lot of ways to handle the anxiety and often, it takes a couple of different tricks to trick the brain and prevent it from what it is doing to the body.
Well-meaning and loving parents often want to relieve the pressure their child is feeling. Many offer that it isn’t important, doesn’t mean anything and so forth, but by doing so, they don’t make the student feel better but actually worse. I have had many students who truly believe their parents’ don’t even have the faith that they, the students, can master the test!
It is better to learn about this challenge and acknowledge it because test anxiety often doesn’t go away in adulthood. There are physiological manifestations of this condition: sweating, racing heart, high or low blood pressure, frequent need to urinate, even yawning! I had one former client that literally passed out before tests or exams. The more a person understands his or her own biology, the better he or she is at recognizing the pattern and accepting the emotions. I have found coaching a student about his or her anxiety and working on methods to create a sense of confidence, in the brewing storm of emotions and thoughts going on inside him or her, are better ways to handle this condition. Also, we have discussions about expectations, stamina, and so forth. It is not something that will get better by minimizing it. I have found that in the case of the test anxious student, multiple administrations do help scores.
Is one test better than the other for the test anxious? I have found neither to have any significant advantage for these students. Years ago, when score choice went away, there was rationalization by people in the counseling and education fields that the ACT was better because of the score choice option.* I thought that this made a lot of practical sense in theory, but in practice, I found it not to actually be true. In fact, I have had so many test anxious students; I would have loved if this were true. Sadly, some of the lowest scores I have ever seen have been on the ACT taken by test anxious students! The fact that multiple administrations help, typically, shows the SAT proves to be slightly better in this capacity because of something that colleges do with admission called super-scoring. **
Use this questionnaire to see if you might be a little test anxious. If so, then perhaps, a proper evaluation by a psychiatrist to diagnose, would be good next step. Many students do not know they are test anxious because so many caring people in their lives have always been cheering them up and minimizing any test mishaps as simply a bad test. Perhaps, it is time to find out if it isn’t just a bad test, but actually a disorder.
* Score Choice: This is the ability to select only the best set of scores to submit to a college. In essence, all testing administrations are hidden. The college receives only the best score. For the ACT, for most colleges, the score that is selected is the best Composite score.
** Super Scoring: This is a term used to define how colleges will take only the best scores of sections of the SAT and combine them into one score. Rather than having to hide scores, the colleges actually take the best Math, Reading and Writing from different test administrations and combine into the highest possible Super Score. A few schools will, in essence, super score the ACT, which involves taking the highest possible of each of the 4 tests in the ACT and re-averaging them into the highest possible Composite score. Thus far, not that many colleges are willing to do this re-averaging of the ACT. The Super Scoring function, in essence, make the first test the lowest possible score. After that, if a student goes up in just one subject, the score will go up. This fact tends to make the repeated administrations of the SAT have score increases multiple times for the test anxious student, which is motivating for the arduous task of multiple tests! I actually had a former client who took the SAT seven times and the ACT three times. His mother sent me a note declaring: ” the seventh time was the charm!”