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High Stakes Testing: Reducing Test Anxiety For Learning Disabled Students

Updated on May 1, 2012

What Is a "High Stakes" Test?

In July of 2011, 178 Atlanta Public School teachers were indicated in what is now referred to as the "largest cheating scandal" in history. It was the largest existing test cheating scandal among dozens of others. Cheating on high stakes tests is generally caught when a sudden spike in scores on one grade level is followed by a significant decrease the following year. While it was very wrong for these educators to cheat it may have also been wrong for them to have felt compelled to do so.

A high stakes test is a test in which a major consequence occurs because of the results of the test. Passing classes to earn a high school diploma or earning a licence to practice a profession are examples of high stakes testing. The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) rewards schools that make AYP ( adequate yearly progress). These scores are a major factor in determining school funding. This creates a high stakes test. The stakes get higher as the ante goes up. Many educators and parents maintain that NCLB supports unrealistic goals; every child tested on grade level,100 percent proficiency by 2014.


High Stakes Testing And The LD Student

Students with mild disabilities such as a learning disability are required to take the same tests as their non disabled peers. A student with a learning disability or any learning difficulty for that matter are at risk for even more test stress. Learning disabled students often suffer from a lack of self esteem because of prior school failure. Motivation may be affected. Some may not even attempt the test and instead mark random answers.

Pep rallies, posters, passing out peppermints and other related activities to boost "test motivation" may send the message to the student that doing well is of urgent importance. Teachers and administrators "talk up" the importance of performing well on the test. This hype could actually be responsible for creating test anxiety, especially in students with learning difficulties.

To experience anxiety is to have a rush of the "fight or flight" hormone cortisol in the brain. While a small increase of cortisol has a positive effect, too much reduces cognitive function. A flood of corisol causes the student to be less able to concentrate. Thus the purpose of raising test scores is ultimately defeated. Parents and teachers will need to support the student and help him find ways to reduce test anxiety.

How Can Teachers Help Reduce Test Anxiety?

Students may very well know much of the content that is being tested but not be able to apply the knowledge in a testing format. Language and communication style, length of test, attention issues and reading difficulties can make testing more difficult for learning disabled students. Under the laws of IDEA (Individuals With Disabilities Education Act) students can have accommodations for testing. These should reflect accommodations made for the student during instruction.While performance on modified tests may not always be fairly compared with performances under standardized conditions, results can still provide information on skills and abilities. General education teachers will need to collaborate with the inclusion teacher or IEP (Individual Education Plan) case manager to ensure that the student is allowed the accommodations that will help compensate for the disability fairly. Some of these accommodations may include:

  • extended test taking time
  • spreading the test out over several shorter sessions
  • providing a distraction free room
  • oral administration
  • use of calculators

Lack of motivation can be a factor in test performance.Some students have experienced too much failure and give up easily. Offering students extrinsic (tangible) rewards is a short term fix for rewarding performance that is not recommended. Increasing motivation to succeed for being rewarded intrinsically (self pride) is preferred.

There are several techniques that teachers can use to increase motivation to perform to their best ability on a high stakes test. These techniques should prevail throughout the school year. Some of these techniques are:

  • provide a well structured and secure learning environment
  • provide support from a resource teacher or learning specialist
  • encourage students to give each other peer support through cooperative learning.
  • randomly select one student per day. have other students to provide positive statements about that student throughout the day.
  • remind students, as a group, that everyone has different talents and is good at something
  • begin teaching at a point where the student can experience success
  • help the student experience success often

Direct instruction in test taking skills can be a powerful tool for motivating students and reducing test anxiety. Some of these techniques are listed in the next section.


Teaching Test Taking Skills For High Stakes Testing

  1. Practice filling in bubbles on answer sheet for younger students and students with difficulty transferring attention from the test booklet to the answer sheet.
  2. Practice matching the number of the question to the corresponding number on the answer sheet.
  3. Teach students how to use the process of elimination for multiple choice questions by eliminating those that make the least sense.
  4. Let students know that guessing can be used. Make sure they understand that in most cases leaving an answer blank will be counted against them.
  5. Provide practice with any type of subtest that may be included on the test, such as analogies or matching words with other words by sound.
  6. If the test allows, make sure that students know that math problems and general directions throughout the test can be read by the teacher.
  7. Teach math vocabulary words (sum,difference, quotient and others).
  8. Practice math problems by using scratch paper and encourage it's use during testing. Students can fold the papers into squares to reduce visual clutter.
  9. Provide practice writing with writing prompts throughout the year.
  10. Review any mnemonics students have been taught as learning strategies. An example is F.O.I.L. (first, outside, inside last) for solving algebraic equations.
  11. Encourage students to use time wisely. Do not spend a lot of time on questions they are not likely to know. Remind them that no one is expected to know everything.
  12. Practice some muscle relaxation techniques.

How Can Parents Help Reduce Test Anxiety

Family support is very important for the learning disabled student. Always attend the student's IEP meetings and provide input, especially for accommodations. By law, annual reviews are held yearly. As students advance through the grades accommodations may need to be adjusted. Content reading material (social students and science) becomes much more difficult beginning in middle school.

Always make sure that the student realizes the importance of relevance of what they are learning in school. As students get older try to begin steering them down a career path that matches their ability and interest.

Teach students to be an advocate for their disability. When the student takes ownership of the disability they can better provide input into what their accommodations should be. Help them to understand their rights and what is available as resources. Learning Disabled students may be offered certain accommodations on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) or American College Testing (ACT). Students with special needs that have not graduated from high school may want to consider taking the Graduate Equivalency Degree (GED) test, a high stakes test for students. Help students obtain and fill out an Application for Special Testing. A release of information can be signed for sending medical and psychological information to GED testing services.

Parents can of course provide the basics such as adequate sleep and a healthy breakfast. Chewing gum may help some students concentrate. Become aware of the student's "testing style." It is important that the parent not have any test anxiety as well. In the case of testing "hype" by the schools administration, try to reduce emphasis by not making a big deal out of the test.

Talk to the student about how anxiety is counter productive. Explore some relaxation techniques together. Discuss the concept of cortisol flooding and how it is detrimental. Most of all, let the student know that the text score, especially for standardized testing was originally designed to measure progress and pinpoint areas of remediation.


The Inclusive Classroom.Margo Mastropieri and Thomas Scruggs.Merril, Columbus, Ohio

Teaching Students With Learning Problems, Cecil Mercer, Ann Mercer, Mcmillan Publishing, New York

Be sure to see Specific Coping and Learning Strategies For Students With Learning Disabilities: How to Survive High School by Teresa Coppens.


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    • rebeccamealey profile imageAUTHOR

      Rebecca Mealey 

      9 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      Thanks Audrey. It is that time of year. I am already seeing the "hype" start up for testing week!

    • AudreyHowitt profile image

      Audrey Howitt 

      9 years ago from California

      What a wonderful hub Rebecca! Test anxiety can really upset the performance of a child in any arena. Such useful tips!

    • b. Malin profile image

      b. Malin 

      9 years ago

      What a Wonderful and Enlightening Hub Rebecca...Good Tips for both the Teachers and the Parents to follow and pass on to their children...Excellent Advice. I remember as a Child becoming very upset on "Test" day...Didn't matter how well I did all year in school.

      I now look forward to Following your Hubs.

    • rebeccamealey profile imageAUTHOR

      Rebecca Mealey 

      9 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      Your right! I tend to forget about the 504s, but I hope all students will get some text anxiety relief this season. Thanks, Tiger Mom!

    • Tiger Mom profile image

      Tiger Mom 

      9 years ago from New York

      Excellent hub! Besides IEP, the 504 Plan also accomodates classroom modifications such as modified seating and the testing accomodations you wrote about-extended time. Thanks for following! Looking forward to reading more of your hubs.

    • rebeccamealey profile imageAUTHOR

      Rebecca Mealey 

      9 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      Thanks alissaroberts for an insightful comment on test anxiety. Life in school is tough for some students.

    • alissaroberts profile image

      Alissa Roberts 

      9 years ago from Normandy, TN

      You have given some fantastic tips for both teachers and parents on how to reduce anxiety with test taking. I can't imagine the added pressure a student with a learning disability must feel when taking these tests. Job well done on a most useful hub - voted up!

    • rebeccamealey profile imageAUTHOR

      Rebecca Mealey 

      9 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      I know that was fun! No high stakes testing!

    • rebeccamealey profile imageAUTHOR

      Rebecca Mealey 

      9 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      Thanks for stopping by to comment clevercat! Thanks for the vote up on reducing test anxiety

    • BlossomSB profile image

      Bronwen Scott-Branagan 

      9 years ago from Victoria, Australia

      Very good advice. How glad I am that I'm retired! I think the most fun years of my teaching was when I was the Directress of a Preschool - no exams and tests!

    • theclevercat profile image

      Rachel Vega 

      9 years ago from Massachusetts

      Wow, fantastic! Really well researched and I love the section on reducing test anxiety. Voted UP!

    • rebeccamealey profile imageAUTHOR

      Rebecca Mealey 

      9 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      I think things will be changing in the way of NCLB waivers and such.There is absolutely no concrete evidence that these tests have impacted education positively.

    • rebeccamealey profile imageAUTHOR

      Rebecca Mealey 

      9 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      Thanks for commenting, Miss Olive. I have seen a few kids here and there with the stress balls. Awesome idea. I think the year long involvement is the key. You just can't "cram" for a test with good outcomes!

    • rebeccamealey profile imageAUTHOR

      Rebecca Mealey 

      9 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      I so agree! I hope others will see it and use it....I started to make it for testing in general but was trying to be more specific for seo! I am waiting to see what they come up with this year. Last year the local elementary school was passing out cups of cola as the kids got off the bus!!! Something about sugar giving the brain a boost!?

    • cclitgirl profile image

      Cynthia Calhoun 

      9 years ago from Western NC

      Test anxiety ranks way up there on the list of worries that students SHOULD NOT have in 3rd, 4th, or 5th grade - the levels that I teach. I soo feel like it's a test for the teacher, really. They get rid of you if you don't perform. Oh, man, I could get on a soapbox about this, on top of a parade float. Man, oh man, I might be a teacher, but I suffered from text anxiety and I am NOT a good test taker. I'll pass on these strategies. :)

    • rebeccamealey profile imageAUTHOR

      Rebecca Mealey 

      9 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      Thanks K9keystrokes! I posted on a few Linkedin educator pages.Maybe it will get around

    • ChaplinSpeaks profile image

      Sarah Johnson 

      9 years ago from Charleston, South Carolina

      Thank you for a very important message about test anxiety. Great tips for teachers. When schools overemphasize the importance of standardized state tests, teach to the test, cram in test prep, and promote pep rallies, parties and similar rewards, I considered that cheating, or at least "gaming the system." Parents, teachers and administrators need to come together to voice concerns over these practices tied to the punitive high-stakes testing in the US, specifically.

      Sorry for the rant!

      You give great information and tips for LD students that I think can be extended to all students and teachers as well. Voted up!

    • K9keystrokes profile image

      India Arnold 

      9 years ago from Northern, California

      This hub is priceless, Rebecca. Your pointers for reducing stress during high stakes testing should be sent to every educational administration! This kind of testing situation adds more pressure not only to students, but to all teachers. It is a heavy burden to carry when what is measured as an acceptable test score, gets hindered by the cognitive functionality of the minds attempting to succeed. As you advise, a better approach is needed. Nice work.


    • rebeccamealey profile imageAUTHOR

      Rebecca Mealey 

      9 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      Thanks! I saw several studies while doing my research that supports the fact that standardized tests are nor more harmful than helpful!

    • cardelean profile image


      9 years ago from Michigan

      Very important information provided in this hub Rebecca! I hate the pressure that standardized testing has put on students and teachers. It is a real shame when it really does not show the whole scope of the progress of our students. Nice tips for reducing the test anxiety.

    • Teresa Coppens profile image

      Teresa Coppens 

      9 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Awesome article Rebecca. Here in Ontario they do allow for most or all of the accommodations in a child's IEP. But, the testing still involves a lot of hype and especially in elementary school many teachers find themselves teaching to the test to catch up on material they haven't yet covered that will appear on the standardized test. I am not convinced at all as to it's value in guaging student improvement over the years as cheating occurs here as well.

    • missolive profile image

      Marisa Hammond Olivares 

      9 years ago from Texas

      rebeccamealey - Great tips! Test anxiety is a real issue. You are right about the administration and faculty hyping up the test. I had never really fully looked at it in terms of creating additional test anxiety, but it makes perfect sense. I have a handful of students that have ADHD. One of the things I do is keep a few hand held stress balls. It helps them keep their hands busy, release tension and stay focused while testing. They work wonders. I also like to have my students take one long deep breath before starting on a standardized test. Encouragement and guidance from the beginning of the school year will help the students feel more prepared and less stressed. Thanks for the great tips.

      Voted up and across/definitely useful - sharing too

    • rebeccamealey profile imageAUTHOR

      Rebecca Mealey 

      9 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      I hate tests as well! Thanks for the vote up!

    • Joelipoo profile image


      9 years ago from Ohio

      Very useful suggestions for reducing test anxiety. I am not a fan of these standardized tests, but all we can do is best help the students get through them.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 

      9 years ago

      This is a really good piece of advice for test takers and teachers. You are so right, the higher the stakes, the harder the exam. I hated taking the GMAT; has to study for weeks prior to it just to feel good about the content. Voted up!

    • rebeccamealey profile imageAUTHOR

      Rebecca Mealey 

      9 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      Thanks thebookmom, I am hoping it will be useful for reducing test anxiety

    • thebookmom profile image


      9 years ago from Nebraska

      Really good hub on a super important topic. I love your thoughts on teaching kids how to take the test and on how to support them while they are taking it. My favorite though, was the insight for parents. They are such an important piece of the puzzle for kids. Great job.

    • justateacher profile image

      LaDena Campbell 

      9 years ago from Somewhere Over The Rainbow - Near Oz...

      Things could be different in your district...hopefully they are!

    • rebeccamealey profile imageAUTHOR

      Rebecca Mealey 

      9 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      hmmmm. we use to use them. Maybe things have changed. Big surprise. I will have to check that out.Thanks!

    • justateacher profile image

      LaDena Campbell 

      9 years ago from Somewhere Over The Rainbow - Near Oz...

      These are some awesome ideas to reduce anxiety. I would encourage teachers to make sure all of these are allowed for their particular assessments. I know that for ours, we can not allow calculators even if a student has that accommodation listed on the just be careful.

      Voted up and interesting.


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