Evaluation (Test) Anxiety
In the era of the No Child Left Behind legislation there is a growing concern that high-stakes testing may have a negative impact on student learning and performance. Mulve-non, Stegman, and Ritter (2005) noted that a cursory review of the academic literature and national news sources on the impact of standardized testing reveals a plethora of anecdotal cases of students experiencing illness, anxiety, and heightened levels of stress. Furthermore, numerous studies have surveyed teachers regarding the impact of standardized tests, producing findings that low performance on these tests is correlated with increased levels of anxiety and stress. Mulvenon and colleagues conducted a survey and concluded that most of the dangers of standardized testing are overstated and that most students, parents, principals, and counselors do not report increased levels of stress or anxiety. Nevertheless, there remains a nationwide concern that an increase in high-stakes testing and test anxiety is harming students.
Test anxiety (TA) is a feeling of apprehension and discomfort accompanied by cognitive difficulties during a test. There is general consensus that it involves at least two components: (a) a pattern of physiological hyper-arousal (i.e., increased heart rate, blood pressure, etc.) that may include physical changes and complaints, and (b) a cognitive obstruction or disorganization of effective problem-solving and cognitive control, including difficulty in thinking clearly (Friedman & Bendas-Jacobs, 1997). These two factors have also been termed emotionality (nervousness about the test situation) and worry (a cognitive aspect which involves concern over one's performance). A proposed third factor that has received less attention is social humiliation, referring to one's concern and awareness that others may negatively view the test performance. This third factor could easily be subsumed by the worry or cognitive component.
Test anxiety is similar to math anxiety in that both involve physiological and worry components. However,
math anxiety can occur during math instruction and homework, whereas test anxiety only occurs in testing environments. Public speaking anxiety is also characterized by the cognitive and emotionality components, but much of the anxiety occurs before the event and tapers off after the first minute of the speech. TA is thought to persist throughout the testing experience, and its onset occurs at the start of the test.
TA has been studied as a construct for more than 50 years (Mandler & Sarason, 1952). Whether test anxiety causes poor test performance or whether previous poor test performance causes TA is unclear. Tobias (1985) proposed the latter causal relationship where previous low test scores are caused by inadequate study skills and/or poor test-taking skills, which in turn cause text anxiety. Research investigating the cause of TA has led to two models: the interference model and the skills deficit model (Birenbaum, 2007). The interference model states that high TA students are plagued by worry and distracting thoughts that interfere with their ability to retrieve information during a test. The skill deficit model states that high TA students' problems occur before the test—in the form of inadequate learning that results in poor performance. Thus, TA is simply an emotion that results from an awareness of being unprepared for the test. The former model stresses reducing TA whereas the latter model stresses an irrelevant role for TA and thus increasing learning strategies. Naveh-Benjamin and colleagues (1987) combined these models and distinguished between two types of TA students. One knows the material well but has trouble retrieving it, whereas the other has poor understanding of the material and thus cannot retrieve it. This entry refers to debilitating test anxiety, rather than facilitating test anxiety. The latter has been demonstrated in both early (Yerkes& Dodson, 1908) and subsequent (Alpert & Haber, 1960) studies where a small amount of anxiety actually improves test performance.
In this entry, normative data is provided on rates of anxiety levels, various correlates of TA are described, and evaluation and assessment of TA are discussed as are methods for helping students manage TA.
An excellent meta-analysis conducted by Hembree (1988) is the source of many of the conclusions presented here, and Hembree source gives a more complete coverage of TA. Where appropriate, these conclusions are updated with more recent research findings.
Normative data on rates of TA are difficult to estimate because as of 2008 large-scale studies have not been conducted. However, a study by Methia (2004) found that more than one-third of school age children experience at least some TA. As mentioned earlier, it is assumed that TA has increased in the early 2000s, possibly due to an increased emphasis on testing in schools. Whatever the precise prevalence rate may be, it is clear that TA remains a concern for educators.
Not surprisingly, TA has been found to be negatively correlated with tests of IQ and various types of achievement and aptitude (Hembree, 1988). Again, these data are correlational and not causal. Thus, it is as plausible that low achievement causes TA as it is to say that TA causes low achievement. In terms of motivational factors, although there is a negative correlation between need for achievement and TA in the elementary years, there appears to be no relationship during the high school and college years. There is a strong negative correlation between self-esteem and TA. Moreover, students with high TA tend to have an external locus of control (i.e., feeling as if they have little control over the events of their lives). TA is positively related with defensiveness and both general state and trait anxiety, whereas it is negatively related with dominance.
One study tested the hypothesized negative impact of cognitive TA in the test preparation, performance, and reflection phases (Cassady, 2004). Students with high-cognitive TA reported lower study skills, rated tests as more threatening, and prepared less effective test notes. The high-anxiety students performed worse on tests and reported higher levels of emotionality. Cassady concluded that cognitive TA is associated with detrimental perceptions and behaviors in all phases of the learning-testing cycle.
Females typically are more prone to TA than are males, with the difference peaking during grades 5 through 10, and declining thereafter. However, this difference is not associated with lower test performance. In one study investigating differences between males and females, Chappell and colleagues (2005) found a small inverse relationship between TA and GPA in both groups. Low-test-anxious female graduate students had significantly higher GPAs than high-test-anxious female graduate students, but there were no GPA differences between low- and high-test-anxious male graduate students. Female undergraduates had significantly higher TA and higher GPAs than male undergraduates, and female graduate students had significantly higher TA and higher GPAs than male graduate students.
Both African American (in elementary school) and Hispanic students exhibit higher TA than do Caucasian students. Later-born children exhibit higher TA than do first-borns. Some researchers have proposed that TA among minority students may be partly explained by the stereotype threat hypothesis (Steele & Aronson, 1995). Based on the perception that there are negative stereotypes regarding certain groups' performance on standardized tests, group members experience higher anxiety on tests due to fear of being stereotyped or confirming the negative group stereotype. According to some, this hypothesis may help to explain why girls perform worse than boys on high-stakes math tests and why African American and Hispanic students perform worse on achievement tests than do Caucasian and Asian-American students (Osborne, 2007).
Many scales are used for measuring test anxiety. Sarason's 1984 Reaction to Tests (RTT) questionnaire consists of four 10-item scales: two that measure the cognitive component (worry and test irrelevant thinking) and two that measure the emotional component (emotionality and bodily symptoms). The Friedban Scale (Friedman & Bendas-Jacob, 1997) of TA has 23 items covering three subdimensions: social derogation (eight items, e.g., “If I fail a test, I am afraid I shall be rated as stupid by my friends.”), physical tenseness (six items, e.g., “I am very tense before a test, even if I am well prepared.”), and cognitive obstruction (nine items, e.g., “In a test, I feel like my head is empty, as if I have forgotten all I have learned.”). Internal consistency reliability coefficients for the three subscales in one study were .93, .88, and .94, respectively (Sawyer & Hollis-Sawyer, 2005), indicating satisfactory levels of internal consistency. The Test Anxiety Inventory for Children and Adolescents (Lowe & Lee, 2005) is a 45-item self-report measure for grades 4 through 12. Coefficient alphas for the TAICA have ranged from .81 to .94. There is also the Test Anxiety Inventory (Spielberger, 1980) used solely with adults. For a shorter scale that can be also be used with older students, the Westside Test Anxiety Scale (Driscoll, 2007) has 10 items covering self-assessed anxiety impairment and cognitions that can impair performance and is designed to identify students with anxiety impairments who may benefit from an anxiety-reduction intervention.
Most early treatments of TA were behavioral and mainly systematic desensitization—a process in which the person is trained in relaxation techniques in the presence of increasing levels of the aversive, anxiety-producing stimulus (here testing environments). Unfortunately, although the early treatments were successful in reducing TA, they were less successful in improving test performance (Allen, Elias, & Zlotlow, 1980). Tryon (1980) suggested that students also need study counseling combined with desen-sitization to improve test performance. However, Hem-bree (1988) concluded that TA reduction programs generally result in higher test performance and GPA. Ergene (2003) conducted a meta-analysis that synthesized results from TA reduction programs. The most effective treatments appear to be those that combine skill-focused approaches with behavior or cognitive approaches. Individually conducted programs, along with programs that combined individual and group counseling formats, have produced the greatest changes. More research is needed to clarify the causal role TA reduction programs may have with regard to achievement and test performance.
Regardless of its prevalence and severity, TA will continue to be a concern of parents and educators. In an era of heightened school accountability, schools (especially administrators and teachers) will be interested in ways to reduce TA in students so as to enhance test performance. Merely treating TA by desensitizing students to the testing situation may not improve their test performance because some students' struggles may be simply due to inadequate preparation. It is important to assess both TA and academic preparedness before deciding on an intervention program. Interventions that provide training in study skills and test taking, combined with reducing the emotionality of the testing situation, are likely to be more successful in facilitating test performance.
Allen, G., Elias, M., & Zlotlow, S. (1980). Behavioral interventions for alleviating test anxiety: A methodological overview of current therapeutic practices. In I. G. Sarason (Ed.), Test anxiety: Theory, research, and applications (pp. 155–185). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Alpert, R., & Haber, R. N. (1960). Anxiety in academic achievement situations. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 61, 207–215.
Birenbaum, M. (2007). Assessment and instruction preferences and their relationship with test anxiety and learning strategies. Higher Education, 53, 749–768.
Cassady, J. C. (2004). The influence of cognitive test anxiety across the learning-testing cycle. Learning and Instruction, 14, 569–592.
Chapell, M. S., Blanding, Z. B., Silverstein, M. E., Takahashi, M., Newman, B., Gubi, A., et al. (2005). Test anxiety and academic performance in undergraduate and graduate students. Journal of Educational Psychology, 97, 268–274.
Driscoll, R. (2007). Westside Test Anxiety Scale validation: Abstract. Retrieved April 21, 2008, from http://www.eric.ed.gov/ERICDocs/data/ericdocs2sql/content_storage_01/0000019b/80/28/06/7b.pdf.
Ergene, T. (2003). Effective interventions on test anxiety reduction: A meta-analysis. School Psychology International, 24, 313–328.
Friedman, I. A., & Bendas-Jacob, O. (1997). Measuring perceived test anxiety in adolescents: A self-report scale. Educational and Psychological Measurement, 57, 1035–1046.
Hembree, R. (1988). Correlates, causes, effects and treatment of text anxiety. Review of Educational Research, 58, 47–77.
Lowe, P. A., & Lee, S. W. (2005). The test anxiety inventory for children and adolescents. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press. Mandler, G., & Sarason, S. (1952). A study of anxiety and learning. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 47, 166–173.
Mulvenon, S. W., Stegman, C. E., & Ritter, G. (2005). Test anxiety: A multifaceted study on the perceptions of teachers, principals, counselors, students, and parents. International Journal of Testing, 5, 37–61.
Osborne, J. W. (2007). Linking stereotype threat and anxiety. Educational Psychology, 27, 135–154.
Sawyer, T. P., & Hollis-Sawyer, L. A. (2005). Predicting stereotype threat, test anxiety, and cognitive ability test performance: An examination of three models. International Journal of Testing, 5, 225–246.
Spielberger, C. D. (1980). Test anxiety inventory. Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press.
Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69, 797–811.
Tobias, S. (1985). Test anxiety: Interference, defective skills, and cognitive capacity. Educational Psychologist, 20, 135–142.
Tryon, G. (1980). The measurement and treatment of test anxiety. Review of Educational Research, 50, 353–372.
Yerkes, R. M., & Dodson, J. D. (1908). The relation of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit formation. Journal of Comparative and Neurological Psychology, 18, 459–482.
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