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Too Much Test Stress? Parents, Experts Discuss High-Stakes Standardized Test Anxiety

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Rebeccah Beller’s third-grade daughter Kate Wolfe isn’t usually one to get overwhelmed by tests. That’s why the Jacksonville mother found it surprising last week when her daughter, came home from Holiday Hill Elementary in tears, hyperventilating over her Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

Near the end of the test, Kate realized she’d filled her bubble sheet out wrong.  

“When I asked her about how many of the problems was she worried about she said probably about a third of the questions, which on an FCAT test is fairly significant if they end up being wrong answers whether its accidental or not,” Beller said.

As a third-grader this was Kate’s first year taking the standardized tests, but she already understood what was at stake.

“I thought that I was going to get a low grade because of it because those would be counted wrong,” she said.

Under current state rules, students who don’t pass the reading FCAT in third grade face possible retention, and kids in 10th grade must pass in order to receive their high school diploma.

By next year, teacher pay in the state will also be tied to student performance on standardized tests, even as the FCAT is replaced by a new yet-to-be-named and fully developed statewide assessment.

A bill is currently moving through the Florida House that would prevent the state from penalizing schools for low grades during the transition period next year. However, even if that bill is passed, students and teachers will still be subject to penalties for poor performance, including retention.

The lack of time to for teachers and students to prepare for next year’s high-stakes exam may only add to the pressure, said Duval School Board Chairwoman Becki Couch.

“This test is even more concerning because at least with the FCAT, they field tested it for three years before it even counted towards accountability,” she said.

The new exam, being developed by American Institutes for Research, will be field-tested in Utah in the fall before being administered to Florida students the following spring.

As a parent and a former teacher, Couch said she’s watched high-stakes testing stress take its toll on students many times before.

“Kids have become so focused on one test throughout the entire year that they kind of lose focus of all the great things that they’ve experienced throughout the year, all the great teaching that’s taken place with their teacher and they just become so stressed over this one day in their life and I think that’s unfortunate,” she said.

For even young children, that stress can manifest itself in physical and psychological ways, said Dr. Wendy Sapolsky of Carithers Pediatric Group.

Over the past 20 years, the Jacksonville pediatrician says the number of children she’s seen with stress-related illnesses around this time of year has grown.

“We’ve seen increased anxiety over the past five to eight years,” she said. “I mean, it’s just incredible.”   

Sapolsky said the uptick at her office usually occurs between February and April. During those months, she said she typically sees a new patient each day suffering some level of test-related anxiety, with symptoms ranging from stomach aches to panic attacks.

“Sometimes, these kids get so worked up as early as third grade with having to pass the FCAT’s to pass third grade, that this time of year we have some children…that have such severe anxiety that we can’t get them to school at this time of year. Literally, they will not get out of the car,” she said.

But anxiety related to standardized testing in children may be more than anecdotal, says University of Hartford Psychology professor Natasha Segool.

Segool has been studying the links between anxiety in children and high stakes testing for the past six years. A 2009 study she conducted of third-, fourth- and fifth-graders in Michigan found that students reported being significantly more anxious when taking statewide assessments compared to other classroom tests.

About 11 percent of the children surveyed reported severe psychological and physiological symptoms tied to the assessments.

“In the scheme of things, that suggests that 89 percent of students may have a heightened reaction in the testing situation but they’re not experiencing clinically elevated levels of anxiety,” she said. “Is that a problem? I think that’s a really good question that we need to look at.”   
Currently, there isn’t much research on anxiety linked to standardized testing or its long-term effects, Segool said. However, research does suggest that while a little bit of anxiety can be good for academic performance, too much stress can have the adverse effect.

“If students aren’t achieving to their highest potential as a result of anxiety…it clearly has the potential to not only affect children long-term, in terms of their achievement, but also in terms of self-concept what they think about themselves,” she said.

Both parents and experts said the heightened levels of stress among children may be due, in part, to the weeks and even months of preparation that take place ahead of the test. In Duval County, that can range from FCAT nights for parents to FCAT pep rallies and pizza parties for students.

“They’re very aware that this experience is outside a realm of their typical educational experiences and I think that’s where the anxiety comes from,” Segool said.

Holiday Hill fifth-grader Ethan Wolfe — Kate’s older brother — put it in simpler terms.

“Everybody else is freaked out about it, so they’re freaking everyone else out about it,” he said.

Ethan said he’s been able to keep his cool about the testing over the last three years. He said he is also looking forward to what comes after testing season: Summer vacation.

His mom Rebeccah Beller says they try not to dwell on the exams too much at home.

Meanwhile, Couch said the focus of Florida schools needs to shift back toward a student’s overall academic achievement.

“It’s just a test,” Couch said.  “It’s not any kind of ongoing portfolio that the child might have to show that they might not be a great test taker, but they’ve completed all of these assignments that show that they can do it, that they can accomplish these tests and meet these standards.”  

You can follow Rhema Thompson on Twitter @RhemaThompson

Rhema Thompson began her post at WJCT on a very cold day in January 2014 and left WJCT to join the team at The Florida Times Union in December 2014.