Standardized tests of significance begin in the third grade because many educational experts believe this is the right age to gauge how well a child is reading and to test knowledge on core subjects.
Studies have shown that kids who are not reading well by the third grade will struggle academically through high school. Over the past decade or so, the No Child Left Behind legislation and assessments tied to the Common Core have increased the number and stakes of standardized tests. Some states and districts even use these tests to determine whether third-grade students read well enough to advance to the fourth grade.
No pressure, right?
What is Test Anxiety?
Schools usually give standardized tests in the winter or spring to ensure adequate instructional time before students have to demonstrate their mastery of a subject. This long lead-up can heighten students’ anxiety. Some argue that test anxiety is felt more by teachers, whose career advancement may depend on the results — but kids get nervous too, even if they are good students. In fact, test anxiety is a recognized form of performance anxiety, and kids who suffer from it need help managing their test dread.
You might think that nerves will help students perform better on a test. However, one study showed that highly anxious test-takers divide attention between their nervousness and the test, whereas those with low test anxiety focus solely on the exam, performing better than the anxious group. Anxiety can manifest in physical symptoms too, so much so that kids may throw up or pass out. It can also cause profuse sweating and an accelerated heart rate.
In short, anxiety will not help your child do well on any test. As a parent, you want to do all that you can to calm your young test-taker.
How to Calm Your Child
Here are some ideas you can use to boost your child’s confidence and soothe away the fears:
It’s only a test.
First of all, emphasize that these are standardized tests, and they are not graded. They should be thought of as a snapshot of the child’s class skills. Explain that they are just used to determine what students know so that teachers can understand if they need cover some material further. Young children don’t need to hear about all of the dire outcomes adults worry about, from students being held back to teachers losing their jobs to schools being closed.
Practice makes perfect.
Give your child a practice or previous year’s test so she can understand how the exam works. A lot of electronic tests now, so look online for examples of questions. Focus on reading the instructions and prompts together, since this is where many test-taking problems arise.
Create a strategy.
Advise your child to answer as many questions as she can and to go back and check her answers. Let her know that most kids are expected to miss some questions. Also, she should know that there are usually experimental sections that won’t be counted.
Have a relaxing night.
The real beauty of standardized testing is that there is a homework hiatus. You’ve been given a Friday afternoon in the middle of the week, so enjoy the free time. Go outside and play some basketball, or go for a long bike ride. Have another family over for an early dinner and push it to the edge of bedtime. You are going for distracted exhaustion.
Turn nervousness into excitement.
Sometimes it is really hard to calm down, so go with the hype and transform it into excitement. “How fun! You’re taking a test!” A Harvard University study found that people who were excited gave better speeches than people who were calm. Whereas nervousness can impede success, excitement can enhance it.
Frame things in a new way.
If your child has a helper mentality, emphasize the altruistic nature of the tests. By taking the test, your child is helping her school’s leaders understand what they have done well and how they can improve the curriculum for next year’s cohort.
Examine the classroom setting.
Teachers are ultimately the ones who keep the test environment calm. It’s been shown that relaxation techniques done in the classroom help test performance. If your child’s teacher is not fostering a calm environment, you might need to speak up. Reach out to the teacher and ask if there is any parental support that would be helpful. In addition, remind your child that taking a couple of deep breaths is a good practice in almost all situations.
Testing Isn’t All Bad
The upside of all standardized testing, according to one teacher, is that the kids do so much of it nowadays that the anxiety is actually much less than it used to be. In addition, standardized tests provide opportunities for early intervention. If third-graders are having trouble reading, that should be addressed sooner rather than later. It’s estimated that 80 percent of low-income children are not proficient readers by the end of the third grade. Clearly work needs to be done.
Looking for more ways to help your nervous child? Check out our article 4 Tips to Alleviate Test Anxiety
Brooks, Alison Wood, PhD. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 2013 American Psychological Association 2014, Vol. 143, No. 3, 1144–1158. Get Excited: Reappraising Pre-Performance Anxiety as Excitement. Retrieved from The American Psychological Association
Francis, David J.; Shaywitz, Sally E.; Stuebing, Karla K.; Shaywitz, Bennett A.; Fletcher, Jack M. Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol 88(1), Mar 1996, 3-17. Developmental lag versus deficit models of reading disability: A longitudinal, individual growth curves analysis. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0022-0618.104.22.168. Retrieved from The American Psychological Association
Larson, Heidi A.; El Ramahi, Mera K.; Conn, Steven R.; Estes, Lincoln A.; Ghibellini, Amanda B. Journal of School Counseling, v8 n19 2010. Reducing Test Anxiety among Third Grade Students through the Implementation of Relaxation Techniques. Retrieved from Institute of Education Sciences
Third Grade Reading Success Matters. Retrieved from The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading
Wine, Jeri Psychological Bulletin, Vol 76(2), Aug 1971, 92-104. Test anxiety and direction of attention. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/h0031332. Retrieved from The American Psychological Association