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Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Test?

By Richard Driscoll

Most of us have experienced high test anxiety at some time in our school careers. We worried the night before the test, sure we would face certain shame and failure by high noon. We went to tests with butterflies in our stomachs, and perhaps studied hard only to forget what we already knew. Yet, such experiences were only occasional, for most of us, and we recovered quickly. What about our sons and daughters?

Jenny is a high schooler with high test anxiety. She worries when she studies, sure that whatever she learns is not enough or that it will vanish from mind the moment she steps into the next exam. She dreads exams, feels queasy, and can hear her heart pounding when she takes exams. And the information she fears she will forget does indeed vanish, leaving her hapless and helpless in the midst of an exam, and more afraid than ever. She may be a good student, or perhaps average, but she always worries afterward that she failed the exam or made an unacceptable score. She is ashamed of her condition, which is common among those with anxiety disorders, and she knows that she is being not quite rational. So she hides her anxieties from her parents and from her teachers as well.

Jenny has the three major features of a test anxiety disorder:

  • Worry, fear of failure, and a general pessimism about most exams;
  • Trembling, racing heart, feeling numb or ill during important tests;
  • Forgetting what she already knows, and not thinking on tests as clearly as she ordinarily does.

At least 5 to 6 percent of secondary school students wrestle with test anxiety severe enough to mess with their minds, make them miserable, and significantly lower their performance on important tests. We need to identify these youngsters, and give them a hand out of their personal pain and confusion.

How do we identify test anxiety disorders in our children? I provide (below) a brief, three-item scale. Read and discuss the items with your son or daughter, then tally the score.


Test Anxiety Scale

Rate the following three items as

5= extremely or always true
4= highly or usually true
3= moderately or sometimes true
2= seldom or slightly true
1= not at all or never true

1. ___As I study for my exams, I worry that I will not remember the material on the exam.

2. ___I feel stressed during exams, and feel queasy or notice that my heart is pounding.

3. ___I lose focus on important exams, and I cannot remember material that I knew before the exam.

___Add your score for the three items.

___Divide by 3. This is your child's test anxiety score. 

A score of 3 or higher suggests high anxiety, and indicates that your child might benefit from an anxiety reduction program. Consult your school counselor or psychologist.


Richard Driscoll, Ph.D., is the author of Tame Test Anxiety. He is a member of the Anxiety Disorders Association of America and a media resource with the American Psychological Association. Additional information is available on