WWNO continues its series "Behind the Test" with a look at standardized testing through the lens of test anxiety. In the weeks leading up to the LEAP test, teachers do a lot to prepare students: drilling them on crucial skills, giving out practice tests, even holding pep rallies to boost confidence. But what about preparing students to cope with test-related anxiety?
Brittany Healy is leading a small group of fifth graders in a guided imagery activity. They’re sprawled out on a couch and sunken into bean bag chairs. Eyes shut, arms loose at their sides.
“Imagine that you are the ocean,” Healy says. “What do you see? There are birds flying overhead and kids making sandcastles.”
Healy is the social worker at Morris Jeff Community School. Most of the year, her job responsibilities are pretty standard. But during LEAP season, she shifts focus.
Healy was placed at Morris Jeff by Communities in Schools, a non-profit that connects schools with support staff. The school comes to her with students' social and emotional needs. And lately, there's been a greater need for stress relief. So Healy might work with one student or a whole classroom, helping them cope. She teaches them tricks to relax their muscles. They might pretend to be turtles, squeezing tight into imaginary shells, and then popping back out. Or they go on imagination vacations.
“You are barefoot and you can feel the wet sand squishing between your toes,” Healy says.
One of Healy's students, fifth grader Byroneshia, wiggles her toes in her black school sneakers. She started meeting with Healy to ease her anxiety about, among other things, the LEAP test.
“I felt nervous and I didn't feel confident,” says Byroneshia. “Because some schoolwork is hard and challenging for me.”
Byroneshia took the LEAP test back in early April. Since schools are basically impenetrable during LEAP week, she and her friends agreed to show off some relaxation techniques after the fact. Byroneshia says when she got frustrated or flustered by a question, she stopped, took a deep breath, and:
“I just dreamed of a nice calm place like Miss Healy taught me,” she says. “I went to a place where no one was there, only me and my family. We was having fun. I heard my dad drinking out of a straw. I saw the waves coming onto shore.”
Byroneshia says this quick break helped her regain calm and focus. That’s the point, says Healy.
“They're gonna be able to do their best and think their best if their body is relaxed,” she says.
Communities in Schools provides social workers and counselors to schools nation-wide. Healy's supervisor is Amanda Schroeder. She oversees support staff in ten schools around New Orleans.
“I think in the past few years we’ve noticed more of how high anxiety the testing is,” says Schroeder.
During the actual test, she says, students might collapse in tears or just totally shut down — put their heads on the desk and refuse to answer questions. It's perhaps not surprising, given the intense preparations. Many schools gear up for the weeklong test the way they might for a sports season. Daily countdowns. Inspirational posters. Some schools even post student rankings in the halls. They display each student's score on the benchmark exams leading up to LEAP, a public visual display of how ready or unready each student is for the test. All this buildup might culminate in a pep rally, where students cheer about passing the test. Morris Jeff has students write encouraging letters to each other.
Schools might think all this motivation is encouraging, but it also communicates just how much is riding on the test. Kevin, another one of Healy’s fifth graders, says he got headaches just thinking about the LEAP.
“Because it’s a very stressful test,” Kevin says.
His favorite calming strategy? Pretending to squeeze a lemon.
“Squeeze your fists as hard as you can and then you let it go and then you just pick up another lemon and squeeze it again,” he says. “Relieves all the headaches and stress from your body.”
The tests are stressful for everyone. Scores determine whether some teachers keep their jobs or whether schools stay open. That anxiety can permeate a school beyond just testing season. And the higher the stakes, the more the test itself feels like a threat.
Kathleen Whalen works with Partnership for Youth Development. A former teacher and social worker, she studies the effects of stress on adolescent brain development. She says a high stakes test can induce those classic fight, flight or freeze survival instincts. It's not like the LEAP is the same as a lion jumping out and attacking you, she says, but:
“Your body still reacts the same way,” Whalen says. “So it inhibits your ability to concentrate, it inhibits your ability to engage in the material, it inhibits your ability to create relationships with the people who are presenting the material because your body is reacting to them as they're the cause of stress.”
Plus, New Orleans students are already living with alarmingly high stress levels, says Amanda Schroeder with Communities in Schools.
“They have possibly spent the night without electricity or maybe didn't have dinner,” he says. “They might have heard gun shots while they were sleeping at night. They're at this highest stress level and at the limit that they can deal with, and this test just might be putting them over the edge.”
By visiting classes the week before the test to teach relaxation, or popping in the morning of LEAP to lead a quick breathing exercise, Schroeder and her team hope to help students avoid breakdowns at the crucial moment.
Back with the fifth graders in Brittany Healy's office, the students have moved from an imaginary beach to a real live checkers game. LEAP week is over. But that doesn't mean the stress disappears.
Once the LEAP was over, “it was okay and all, but I was still worried about if I was gonna pass or not,” says fifth grader Kevin.
LEAP scores will come back soon, and for Kevin, that's provoking anxiety. So he's still squeezing his imaginary lemons and squishing imaginary sand between his toes until the test results come. If they're not good, that could mean getting sent to summer school or held back. And more stress.
Support for education reporting on WWNO comes from Baptist Community Ministries, Entergy, The Hechinger Report, and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.