A condition characterized by persistent anxiety in test situations that is severe enough to seriously interfere with performance.
Physical symptoms of test anxiety include a rapid heartbeat, dry mouth, sweating, stomach ache, dizziness, and desire to urinate. The anxiety interferes with concentration and memory, making it difficult or impossible to recall previously memorized material and resulting in test performance that does not accurately reflect a child's intelligence or the amount of effort spent preparing for the exam. Often, the memorized material is recalled once the test is over and the child leaves the classroom.
Young people with text anxiety are usually conscientious students who work hard and have high expectations of themselves. The condition may begin with inadequate performance on a particular test, which then creates a general fear of the testing situation that hampers future performance, creating a vicious cycle of anxiety and low scores. Very creative students may develop test anxiety when unorthodox responses to questions result in low grades that make them question their own abilities and intelligence. Test anxiety can interfere significantly with a child's academic accomplishment and impair confidence and self-esteem. Parents of children who are suffering from this condition should try to get them to talk about it (often they don't tell anyone, and parents and teachers think the cause of their low test grades is underpreparation). Sometimes teachers are willing to consider alternative testing procedures, such as oral exams instead of written tests. In some cases, test anxiety can be reduced or eliminated by having a child work on test-taking skills, such as strategies for answering different types of questions, and then hone them through practice testing (including timed testing if this is a source of apprehension). Both creating and taking practice tests can help defuse anxiety by demystifying the test experience. If the problem doesn't improve, the child's pediatrician may recommend treatment by a behavior therapist aimed at changing the way a child thinks about and responds to tests.
Behavior and cognitive behavior therapy offer a variety of strategies to counter test anxiety. A more positive mental image of tests can be developed by having the child pretend to take a test while "playing school" with a friend or sibling, using props such as books, pencils, notebooks, and makeshift classroom furniture. Mental imagery can also be used, with the child imagining herself in a test situation while she is in a relaxed state in order to begin associating feelings of relaxation with test taking. This technique can be worked into a program of gradual desensitization, in which the child develops the ability to remain relaxed while experiencing a sequence of increasingly anxiety-producing situations related to test taking. A typical sequence might be: 1) imagine taking a test; 2) take various kinds of mock tests; 3) practice taking a timed test; 4) sit in the classroom where an actual test will be given and imagine you are taking it; and 5) take an actual untimed test. A list of positive statements ("self-talk" or "affirmations") can be created to counter anxiety, such as "I have studied and I know the material well," "this test is only one part of my grade," and "if I take a deep breath I will remember what I have studied." These can be taken to school on a note card at test time and, with teacher permission, they can be displayed on the desk and the student can be instructed to repeat them to help counter anxiety.
Other techniques that have been used to treat test anxiety include hypnotherapy and biofeedback. The beta blocker Inderal, taken on an as-needed basis, has helped adolescents overcome anxiety in test situations.
Erwin, Bette, and Elza Teresa Dinwiddie. Test Without Trauma: How to Overcome Test Anxiety and Score Higher on Every Test. New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1983.
Hayes, Jeri, ed. How to Get Better Test Scores [Grades 3-4; 5- 6; 7-8]. New York: Random House, 1991.