Unpacking the Learning – Part 6



Test anxiety is real!


  • Physical symptoms. Headache, nausea, diarrhea, excessive sweating, shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat, light-headedness and feeling faint can all occur. Test anxiety can lead to a panic attack, which is the abrupt onset of intense fear or discomfort in which individuals may feel like they are unable to breathe or having a heart attack.
  • Emotional symptoms. Feelings of anger, fear, helplessness and disappointment are common emotional responses to test anxiety.
  • Behavioral/Cognitive symptoms. Difficulty concentrating, thinking negatively and comparing yourself to others are common symptoms of test anxiety.  Test Anxiety

Life is full of tests – driving tests, health exams, academic and professional assessments, and athletic/endurance testing just to name a few. Most of the time, preparation and practice factor into the testing equation. For school-aged students, taking a test can be the single most anxiety-ridden activity in their academic career.

It really doesn’t have to be that way.

One of the main reasons that test anxiety exists in the school setting is due to the rigid grade level time table and pace of instruction. We assume that all students will learn at the same rate in the same way and demonstrate that learning in exactly the same manner via a paper pencil test. There is little room for deviation and hardly any exceptions to this rule.

Sir Ken Robinson puts it this way, “Learning happens in the minds and souls, not in the databases of multiple-choice tests.”

In particular, high stakes testing seems to drive the pace and delivery of curriculum because we tend to assign those results so much weight and credibility. Both state and federal laws demand that we administer yearly assessments based on the states standards. This practice is explained as a way to ensure educational quality and equity. In reality, it ensures neither. However, it does provide test publishers a certain level of job security.

testing instuments dreamstimesmall_5908127

“It is not unrealistic to consider assessing students, but to what end and for what purpose? Informal classroom assessment is needed, and it is very likely that students themselves can help in the development process. However, the assessments must make sense and be utilized for learning, not grading. This can be very liberating for both the teacher and the student.” (Learning Unleashed pg. 97-99)

This type of assessment is known as formative, which means that the evidence gathered is used to adapt the teaching to meet the needs of the students. Studies show that strengthening the practice of formative assessment produces significant, and often substantial, learning gains.  (Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam in Learning Unleashed pg. 129)

Formative assessment through student observation, demonstration, or some type of performance with relevant teacher feedback enables students to self-assess their own growth and learning. It requires coming alongside the learner as a coach providing feedback and support as needed. It also takes into account that we all learn differently, and at different rates.

When we provide ongoing and specific formative feedback, without the imposed artificial deadlines, learning is inevitable. I refer to this as “goal to goal” learning.


I have heard it said, (and at one time I’ve said it myself) that interim, end of year, and high-stakes assessments are valuable tools for data analysis and reflection. The data analysis and reflection may serve some teachers, school boards, or those who rank school districts, but there is little to no value for the individual student. They typically can’t review the actual test to see how they performed or how any mistakes might be corrected. In some cases, they may receive a composite score highlighting areas of strength or weakness, but the results are not very informative.

What is even less informative, and generally a waste of time, is when schools/teachers set their yearly goals based on previous year student assessment results. This really makes no sense at all and yet it is often a common ritual as teachers return for a new school year. Proponents believe this type of goal setting practice will increase student performance and teacher effectiveness. My apologies to those I’ve led in this endeavor during my years as an educational administrator. We can all learn from our mistakes. I know I have.

Common Sense Alert: Current students don’t perform better on tests by using former students results and teacher don’t teach better using results from students they no longer have. 

Teachers access plenty of relevant and meaningful evidence every day in their classrooms. Unfortunately, many are under the assumption that almost everything must be tested, scored and averaged together for the purpose of grading. Their teacher prep courses are geared toward that paradigm. Teachers also encounter an almost audible clock ticking away the minutes as they rush to complete the paced curriculum and standards.

When we genuinely examine and understand the realities and nuances of authentic and individualized learning, we might begin to question many of the current school assessment paradigms that tell quite a different story. For too long, the story sounded like this: teach, test, repeat. A new generation of learners demand a different and more relevant approach and outcome and we would do well to listen to them.

Up next in this series: Grading.


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