How the ‘Stress Bias’ Affects Students’ Test Scores

Test anxiety is real. Even those who don’t experience extreme levels of stress when taking exams probably know someone whose skin goes clammy and stomach churns on test days. The condition is recognized by the Anxiety and Depression Society of America as a form of performance anxiety, due to fear of failure, lack of preparation, and poor testing history.

Unlike a normal amount of stress, test anxiety doesn’t lead to better results. As new research shows, under some circumstances, it can decrease test scores—sometimes by quite a bit.

Stress Bias: the Impact of Test Anxiety

Parents and teachers have long suspected that the stress of test-taking can influence students’ results. However, without formal research on the topic, it was hard to know how much of a difference it could make. A new study shows that stress bias decreases standardized test scores for some students. The effect is particularly severe for children exposed to other significant stressors outside of school, such as neighborhood violence and poverty.

These results may require states to reconsider the methods used to measure academic progress. If stress causes lower scores, annual standardized academic achievement exams may not accurately reflect some students’ skills and abilities. Since these scores have an impact on the courses students take, whether or not they are eligible to graduate, and which colleges they attend, the effects of stress bias extend far beyond the day of the test.

Testing, Stress, and Performance

The study, titled Testing, Stress, and Performance: How Students Respond Physiologically to High-Stakes Testing, is the work of researcher Jennifer Heissel and her team. The group measured levels of the stress hormone cortisol in students before, during, and after high-stakes exams. Once compiled, the results were powerful.

The students selected for the study attended school in New Orleans. They were already under significant amounts of stress due to family instability, neighborhood violence, and poverty, which affected their bodies’ ability to handle additional stressors. Researchers examined cortisol levels during weeks where no exams were held and compared the results to exam weeks.

Some students had marked increases or decreases in cortisol during exam weeks, and the changes showed up in exam results. The students who reacted strongly to the stress of testing scored 0.40 standard deviations lower than expected. These results suggest that exam scores are not necessarily a reflection of students’ abilities. Given the impact that standardized test scores have on future academic decisions, these findings are significant.

Of course, this is the first study to methodically examine the impact of stress on high-stakes test scores. A relatively small group of students were included, and all were from low-income backgrounds in New Orleans. Additional research may be needed to move forward with large-scale policy changes. In the meantime, there are steps teachers and parents can take to support overly anxious children.

Supporting Students Through Test Anxiety

The good news about test anxiety is that it can be managed. With guidance from parents and teachers, many students have successfully reduced their stress levels before and during exams. These are some of the techniques that have proven effective with students of all ages:

  • Increase opportunities for art, music, and movement during periods of high test-related stress. All of these areas are proven antidotes to academic performance anxiety.
  • Offer plenty of opportunities to review material. Eliminating the sense of being unprepared for the test reduces stress.
  • Practice test-taking. In some cases, anxiety comes from not knowing what to expect. Use sample questions and explain all parts of the answer sheet so students can clearly visualize how test day will unfold.
  • Explain the stakes. Students understand that certain tests are particularly important, and they sense teachers’ concerns about standardized state tests. However, they may be imagining consequences of poor scores that are far worse than reality. By discussing how test results are used, students who have catastrophized the process will understand that poor results do not spell the end of the world.
  • Value progress as much as—or more than—scores. If students are showing improved performance, take time out to celebrate.

Finally, be sure to provide unlimited reassurance. Beneath test-related stress lies any number of dark feelings. For example, students may believe that parents and teachers will think less of them if scores are low. Remind students to do their best, but be sure to note that test scores don’t impact the pride and affection you feel for them.


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