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A classroom teacher’s guide to reducing test anxiety (and testing!)

A 10-year elementary school teaching veteran offers tips on how to focus students on the learning, not the assessments

As educators, sometimes it seems like all we ever do is jump from preparing our students for one assessment to another. Reams have been written about the corrosive influence of pervasive testing in education, but is there anything we can do as classroom teachers to avoid over-testing our students?

It turns out there is! We may not be able to avoid district- and state-mandated assessments, and other tests do have their place—testing is, after all, a useful way to measure some kinds of student progress—but there are a few things we can do to minimize testing and reduce the anxiety and other negative consequences of testing.

Our district and state assessments are a great measure of students’ growth, but they are only one measure. I rely greatly on observation and students’ daily work. I have often had students come to school after a rough morning at home or when they’re ill, and the results of their tests under such circumstances don’t match with what I’ve seen in class. We don’t have cookie-cutter kids, and I most definitely don’t expect cookie-cutter results.

Below are a few ways I try to avoid over-testing and help students manage the testing that is unavoidable.

Look ahead
At the beginning of the year, when we have the opportunity to assess students through observation and district benchmark assessments, I determine the areas of greatest need and work with our interventionist, coaches, and my other grade-level teachers to determine how best to meet the needs of my struggling students.

Monitor progress
We follow our state and district testing cycle, but in our grade-level teams we work closely to determine how we will test our kids on curriculum material. We use the Curriculum Learning Institute’s (CLI) Model to determine how and when we will assess our students on our adopted curriculum materials. We also use the CLI Model to create subject pacing guides used by each grade-level team.

This has been positive because we have assessments that are created by grade-level teams and adopted by our district. As teachers, we have the flexibility to progress-monitor students as needed. Our struggling students are on a schedule to be progress-monitored for growth so we can determine if they need a new intervention.

If you keep your students in the loop about testing and help them understand its importance, they tend to have less anxiety and more buy-in. I’m honest about the importance of our state and district assessments and how we use that data to deliver instruction to them. I also tell their parents what our testing dates are so they can help prepare anxious students and reinforce the importance of trying your best.

Even so, I occasionally have students with anxiety about assessments. I make sure to take extra time to speak with these particular students and give them strategies to help calm their nerves and overcome their anxiety.

Use formative assessment to gauge skills
With the help of Scholastic Books (), I’ve created a large classroom library organized by reading level. Each book in the library has a colored dot indicating the book’s level. As students progress, I add the appropriate dots to their laminated bookmarks to expand their reading lists.

Also included in the bookmarks is their login information for Renaissance Star Reading® and Renaissance Star Math® assessments, which we use for benchmark assessments in the fall, winter, and spring. Those benchmarks inform instruction and help me to evaluate my own teaching. We can use that data to determine what our students may need and how we can differentiate instruction to meet all levels of progression for a particular skill.

Reward achievement
When I plan my incentive party each quarter, I ensure that each child is included and receives some sort of reward for meeting even a small percentage of their goal. I’ve had great buy-in from parents using this method.

As classroom teachers, we can’t eliminate all testing from the classroom. However, we can use a variety of methods to assess student achievement and make unavoidable testing less fraught with anxiety for everyone involved.

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