As testing days continue to rise in districts around the country, many educators and researchers believe schools could do a better job minimizing the stress and anxiety students feel due to testing. Testing has always been a source of uncertainty and discomfort for students, but in the era of high-stakes exams, students have more to manage than ever before in the lead-up to test day.
In an attempt to combat this anxiety, many districts, schools, and teachers have begun integrating stress relief strategies into the curriculum as they prepare for tests. Techniques like breathing exercises, light yoga, and meditation are growing in popularity around the country, but they all have the same limitation: they’re not doing anything to directly improve student performance.
Teaching students how to relax and clear their heads is clearly a key piece of the test anxiety puzzle, but it is far less than the full picture. To truly be stress-free on test day, students need confidence and the self-belief that they can succeed. To foster this mindset, students need to engage with actual test-like conditions and materials. Only through familiarity with the test’s format and expectations can students truly feel prepared to conquer.
That’s where practice tests come in. For years, practice tests have been maligned as busy work, but the fact of the matter is that a solid preparatory program of high-quality practice tests can help students feel prepared for a test far better than mindful breathing or a stretching break.
Practice tests offer just what the title implies: practice. Athletes don’t just jump into high-level competition; they practice first. Unprepared athletes are unlikely to win, even if they are exceptionally talented, and leave themselves more open to injury. Similarly, test takers who haven’t had the chance to practice are less likely to succeed and leave themselves open to intense disappointment and stress.
So, why are practice tests so valuable? Well, for one, they mimic the physical and psychological conditions of taking a test. Practice tests look and feel just like the exam they’re built to prepare for, whether it’s the SHSAT, SAT, GRE, or Smarter Balanced test, and they put students through the same thought processes and cognitive exercises that they’ll need to succeed on test day. By “scrimmaging” on practice tests, students can anticipate skills the real test will be accessing and grow accustomed to the rigors and expectations of the exam.
Test anxiety is certainly a key issue in our schools, but we shouldn’t assume the best way to assuage student stress is to eliminate cognitive rigor. While test anxiety strategies like yoga and deep breathing might help students overcome passing feelings of dread, the only way to truly eliminate their stress is to remove the mystical power of the test by making it knowable. Practice tests do this by providing students with authentic experience that shows them that they can and will succeed.