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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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