"By you acknowledging my problem of test anxiety, I was able to work with you to break down step by step what I need to do to become better and just showing what I know through the test. It’s hard to believe that it’s now junior year and someone is just acknowledging my test problem—even when I tell a teacher they seem to simply ‘not care’ and don’t want to spend time working with me." —Anna L., student
If there were an award for sweetness and light, Zenani would win it, hands down. I have rarely met a gentler person, or one with a more positive posture towards life.
We are meeting before school because she wants to talk about her test grades, which have been consistently low, rarely above failing.
“I don’t know why it happens,” she says, “but I freeze up whenever I take a test. I just stare at the paper - I can’t think straight.”
“Zenani, we need to figure out specifically what’s happening when you take a test so we can come up with a plan to make it easier for you. Let me ask you, do you have this trouble with tests in all of your classes?”
“And has this been true for a long time, or is it getting worse?
“I remember clearly being in third grade doing the ISAT test, and being terrified. And what was worse was we had to announce how many right we got on the practice tests in front of the whole class. So while other people were calling out 28 or 30 out of 36, I had to call out 18. It was humiliating. But the point is, I was already choking on a test.”
“I’m really sorry to hear about that - it’s unfortunate when teachers think you will do better if you have to work not to be humiliated.”
“Yeah, and my seventh grade teacher did the same thing.”
“Well that’s too bad. But do you have a sense about how much of your anxiety has to do with time constraints? Lots of people with test anxieties freak out when they are afraid they won’t have enough time to finish.”
“Timed tests are what sets it off, no question.”
“Now, in our class, I design the tests so that everyone has plenty of time. That doesn’t seem to be helping you that much, though.”
“No, even knowing there’s lots of time - I do it to myself. When I’m panicking, it’s like I get stuck and time goes by and I’m just not thinking much.”
“Let me ask you this then; do you believe you can do the required level of difficulty successfully when you are doing homework?”
“Definitely. I get to the point where I don’t need helpful hints, and I’m getting the problems right by myself.”
“And when you have the same level of problems on the test, you can’t do them, is that right?”
“Yes. It makes me crazy, knowing that I know how to do this, and blanking on how.”
“Okay, this is a place to start then. We’ll begin by doing homework together before school, if you can do that - “
“ - I can - “
“ - and after I see that you can do them, I’ll give you the same kind of problem, but with a time limit. It’s still not a test, and I’ll be there to talk to, so we’ll see if you can do that. Meanwhile, I’ll have a much better sense of how successful you really are, which will allow us to talk about your test grade much more accurately when we do grade conferences at the end of the quarter.
“If we need to, you can do the next few tests in this room during your free periods, and you can talk me through what you are thinking. I will be here to help you stay calmer, if you can. And don’t forget, no matter what happens, you will always have the option to do a resubmittal or a retest, if you need to.”
Over time, Zenani makes some progress in controlling her fears. The classroom environment helps a lot, and the process of graduating from doing homework successfully to doing tests fairly successfully helps. She also discovers that the sound of water gurgling in the bubbler I have on the side counter is soothing, so from that point on, she does her practicing and takes her tests sitting right next to the bubbler. I believe that when she realizes she has some control over her situation, it helps subdue the panic.
But if we set aside the lower grades and the academic damage that this test anxiety has done to Zenani, there is the humiliation, the loss of self-confidence and self-worth that is truly insidious. And for every Zenani, who has the wherewithal to articulate what’s happening, there are a hundred others who silently internalize the damage.