Sunday, April 27, 2008

Anxiety and Timed Testing

Megan Murphy

Knowledge of student anxiety in timed writing assessments has great importance for students, teachers and writers alike. It is important because almost everyone has experienced some aspect of participation in a timed writing assessment, whether teaching or taking one. The reason for studying this topic is to gain insight in how much anxiety plays a part in the way a student performs on writing assessments when they are timed. Because timed writing assessments are a controversial topic in academic discourses throughout the United States, many composition theorists and rhetoricians have studied how they affect students.

Timed Writing Assessments
Performance assessments are used in a wide range of fields. They were originally used as political instruments before they moved into school districts as a measurement of performance and success (Shavelson et al). They have become present in almost all of the states across the U.S. and are now acting as a national scoreboard for schools, displaying their student’s scores in competition which other school districts (Simmons). These performance assessments were originally created with the “intent to develop measures of student achievement that focus on student ability to apply their conceptual understanding and problem-solving skills in novel situations […] if assessment systems focus on ‘high order thinking’ the reasoning goes, curriculum and teaching can be changed” (Shavelson et al, 215).

These performance assessments in turn were created as statewide testing that first came into affect in the U.S. in the 1970’s (Simmons). These timed assessments originally took place in the state of Florida and teachers and students alike have been struggling with them ever since. Other states followed in the footsteps of Florida and began their own versions of timed assessments. Florida felt the need to put these tests into motion because of the way their State Department of Education responded to the legislative Accountability Act that was created in 1972 (Simmons). The original set up for the tests was multiple choice and a writing section. But linguists and rhetoricians did not judge the writing section, they were judged by a simple writing team (Simmons). These statewide tests along with other timed writing assessments have caused controversy in a large amount of school districts and have challenged students in a new, debatable way.

Student Anxiety
Theorists have found that student’s feel anxiety in school in a wide range of ages, beginning in elementary school and lasting until their later years in high school or even college (Hill et al). This anxiety that students are feeling is most often caused by their fear of evaluation, which is often caused by timed writing assessments and test taking. This test anxiety that students are feeling is defined as “an unpleasant feeling or emotional state that has physiological and behavioral concomitants, and that is experienced in formal testing or other evaluative situations” (Hill et al, 106). More recently, this test anxiety has become more prevalent in children as young as preschool age and emerging into elementary school, when it then stays with them until they are pressured to take standardized tests in high school (Hill et al; Petroskey). This anxiety has started at such a young age because parents put too much pressure on their children to perform unrealistically for their age. Also, as the children get older, they not only feel pressure to perform well in school from their parents, but they also sense a need for competition against their fellow classmates (Hill et al; Simmons). Too many of them have unfair evaluations in front of the class which in turn only makes them feel more nervous about performing well on tests so that they are doing as well, if not better that their classmates (Hill et al).

Apprehension was also found as an anxiety trait in timed writing assessments (Petroskey). Apprehension plays a large part in student anxiety in writing because the students become aware of what is weighing on that specific test and what it holds for their future. Students are recognizing the pressure that is put on them to do well and therefore are more apprehensive in the classroom, causing the teaching of writing to be more difficult for the instructors (Petroskey). This apprehension also causes the students to be more nervous about writing in timed assessment situations because they know their evaluation has an effect on their potential and “the consequences of test performance assume a more important role in school” (Hill et al, 107). Students have a right to feel this apprehension though, as timed writing assessment scores weigh heavier on their placement into the next grade or even receiving a diploma at graduation (Petroskey 73; Hill et al).

A “writing apprehension instrument” has been created for teacher’s to use in instructional settings that can help both teachers and students have a better guide of who needs help with their writing and who does not (Petroskey, 74). If the teachers use this instrument and then realize who needs more help with their writing, the students would in turn feel less anxiety about their writing and would have a better attitude about it. If the students get enough instruction about their writing before taking the standardized tests, they would be able to perform better and feel less stress (Petroskey).

Time Affecting Anxiety
Many studies have been done on whether the time allowed for a writing assessment has an affect on a student’s anxiety. Timed writing assessments have been given in the form of both “power tests” and “speed tests”(Powers et al, 433). Power tests “contain questions of varying difficulty and […] afford all test takers ample time to consider and respond to every test question” while on the other hand, speed tests “present only very easy questions that, if reached, can be answered correctly by virtually all test takers” (Powers et al, 433). The creators of standardized tests have been found to set it up in power test format, because although “most standardized tests are intended primarily to reflect test takers’ intellectual ‘power’, (rather than the rate at which they work) virtually all such tests usually involve some element of speed, however minor” (Powers et al, 433).

Test creators feel that they have to include the time aspect of the tests so that it is fair to every test taker, and that no one person is treated differently than the other. But it was found that this specific time deadline is what caused most test takers anxiety because they are put on “a time constraint” and have the “pressures of time” (Powers et al, 434). It is this exact time constraint that causes student test takers to feel anxious in writing. Many feel that the time constraint can “diminish a writer’s authenticity” and that they may not have enough time to express exactly what they want in the time given (Powers et al, 434). The allotted time may make the standardized test seem fair to everyone, but they are not necessarily a good representation of how well a person writes.

One study found that in comparing student’s performance statistics on timed and un-timed tests, “there was very little relationship between anxiety and performance in the un-timed condition, whereas the relationship was much stronger in the timed condition” (Walen et al, 363). Also included in this study, three different individuals were studied on their emotional responses to a timed test. Two adult women were examined who were to reflect on their past experiences during “taking skills-tests” and a third grade girl who was currently taking these tests (Walen et al, 361). It was found that their negative emotional responses didn’t have anything to do with the specific course (mathematics) or to the fact that they were being assessed, but more towards the timed nature of the tests they had to take. There was also a direct correlation between the anxiety the students felt about doing well on the assessment and their achievement (Walen et al; Hill et al).

Although there has been a large amount of research done on the way timed writing assessments have affected student’s anxiety, theorists have yet to find a way to resolve the problem. It is widely recognized across the United States that children as young as elementary school age extending to students entering high school and college still deal with anxiety and apprehension towards timed tests. If researchers could find a way to analyze a student’s writing abilities without putting them into a timed test-taking situation, then they would be able to eliminate the anxiety that they feel towards the event.

For works cited, see annotated bib.

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