Stress and Tests

It’s the season of standardized testing in Ontario – EQAO reading, writing, and math. When I reflect on my experiences with EQAO I recall them being very positive. I was always a good student and very confident in my abilities, and I also never worried about writing tests. For me, tests were fun and usually easy because I was good at memorizing facts and explaining myself through writing.

As an educator, my perception of standardized testing is drastically different because I see it from the perspective of my students. Some of my students approach tests in a way similar to myself: calm and confident. Others are unfamiliar with standardized tests, because in our classroom we use student-tailored assessment to capture their brilliance on paper. Some students think that they are bad at tests and immediately set themselves up for failure. Some of my students test well, but become so stressed over EQAO and the surrounding hype that they freeze, or even become physically ill.

What are we doing to our students? In Robert Sapolsky’s book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers he discusses at great length the host of diseases caused by stress, especially chronic stress that affects young adults, teenagers, and now even children. The compounded negative effects of chronic stress from a young age include higher risk of cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and premature death. As the people responsible for these children for so much of their lives, how can we knowingly put them at such great risk? Shouldn’t we be doing everything in our power to mitigate the stress in their lives?

I can’t help but feel as though I am letting my students down when I present them with EQAO. When I see their fear, their anxiety, their frustration I cannot help but feel responsible. Perhaps if I had worked harder to prepare them; if I had spent more time going over these formatted questions or if I had helped them less, they would be less upset.

The reality is that there will never be enough time to ensure that every one of my students does well on EQAO, because EQAO is not designed for everyone to do well. On those tests, you will see maybe 25% of my students doing well – on a good day. That means they’ve come to school well rested, having had a nutritious breakfast, engaged in only positive social interactions, and likely having studied the night before. The fact is that even my best and brightest test-wiz students will be skipped over on a day when they’re tired or their hair won’t cooperate. When this happens, you’re causing them stress too.

So, what do we do to solve this conundrum? Throwing standardized tests out the window has been proposed for years, but no real measures have been taken to achieve this. I think that this is because no well-packaged, ribbon-on-top replacement has been proposed, and that’s what everyone is waiting for. Regardless, student anxiety in the classroom is a teacher’s problem. It is our obligation to make sure that our students feel safe in our class, as is their right. I’ve taken up the practice of explaining how standardized tests work and why they exist. I present my students with all the facts so that they know what to expect come May. We practice EQAO-style questions and make them fun, generating questions together based on books we’re reading and pop-culture. I’ve even had my students work in groups to create questions for me to solve, which they seem to enjoy doing. Most importantly, I tell them that the test says nothing about them, and that their results don’t matter to me. The people who read those answers don’t know them like I do, which is why I am their teacher.


How do you survive standardized testing in your classroom? Have any tips on overcoming test anxiety with our students? Enjoy any of Sapolsky’s works? Share your thoughts in the comments below!


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