Test Anxiety in Students


Where does test taking  anxiety come from?

The causes of test anxiety vary widely among children and the prevalence is high. Some estimates suggest that a quarter to a third of students suffer from test anxiety! That’s a lot of kids! 

Failure to reach academic goals or expectations

Test anxiety may come from the child’s lack of ability to perform. As children get older they are more able to compare themselves to others, and they come to realize that their school success is not entirely tied to how hard they try.

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Learning disabilities, ADHD and Depression

A child who has a learning disability may become anxious when tested because of their inability to do the work. Over time this could lead a pattern of anxiety which they try to escape by giving up. Similarly, a child who has adhd and difficulty concentrating may realize that they are unable to perform in a way that is expected.

Lack of Self Confidence.

A child who has low self confidence for whatever reason may falsely conclude that they are less skilled than their peers at study skills may observe that he has to try much harder and is never able to measure up, therefore they develop lack of self confidence that feed anxiety during test taking time.

Unrealistic expectations

One the causes of test taking anxiety can come from parental expectations. A parent who expects unrealistic things from their child academically may unwittingly create test anxiety in a child.

School Environment

Test anxiety can come from the environment of the school. I have children in the lower elementary grades who are extremely debilitated by the high stakes testing they are forced to undergo. I also work with teachers in therapy who are similarly affected by this environment. Just like children are affected negatively by television with violent and sexualized content they are affected negatively by this kind of environment.


Some children and adults are predisposed to be anxious, and the anxiety is triggered by testing situations. Test anxiety can occur because of worry about being evaluated or humiliated by peers and teachers similar to a social phobia, especially in older children.

Poor Study Skills

Another one of the causes of test anxiety is poor study skills. A child who studies but does not know how to do this well, can be impacted by their failure. They may develop a cycle where they continue to study effectively and become anxious during test taking because of previous failures, or they may give up entirely.


In our society, we continuously emphasize the importance of acquisition and competition. Our children absorb their values and belief systems not just through what we tell them but what we do and what they see on television.

The fact that a fourth or fifth grader, who should love learning and playing and have a curiosity about themselves and the world, would be plagued by this kind of disorder should be disturbing. Although it is important to create good study habits and do well academically, it should not be perceived by the child as so important that they become mentally ill.

Examine the message you give your child indirectly through the choices you make and your own behavior. I think it is much more important for children to acquire good stress management skills, coping skills, the ability to identify their feelings, a sense self esteem and a sense of self preservation. They should not be taught to choose grades or perfect test performance over their health. Too many of the adults I see have not been taught to care for themselves and later suffer the consequences and require therapy to function.

My own Experience

Test anxiety in students is something I am quite familiar with. Not only do I see these children every day in my practice, but I have experienced it myself. In schools where, high stakes testing are used, test anxiety in students is getting even worse.

When I was in fourth grade, I can remember getting physically sick before a math test. In fact, just thinking about that test could bring about symptoms of nausea, a headache, dizziness and thirst. Accompanying these physical symptoms was a fear that I would fail,  I would get bad grades, my teachers would not like me, and my parents would be ashamed of me. In fact, many of the missed answers I knew, but was so nervous I could not remember.

I don’t think I ever told anyone about this and I don’t think anyone noticed. But this lasted well into my sophomore year of college before I was able to recognize what it was and where it came from. I continued to receive good grades throughout school and college because I was able to cope with this anxiety.

Unfortunately test anxiety in students does not always result in a happy ending. Students with test anxiety may go on to conclude that they are unable to be academically successful. There grades may be impacted by it and they may ultimately not pursue higher education because of it. 

Diagnosing Test Anxiety in students

Test taking anxiety does not have a separate category in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM V) . It is actually a  form of performance anxiety and is therefore considered part of the subtype of generalized social anxiety disorder.

What does it feel like?

As with all anxiety, test anxiety is an interplay of physical symptoms, thoughts, and feelings.

Students with text taking anxiety may  have physical symptoms such as a  headache, stomachache , sweating difficulty catching their breath, a fast heartbeat, and dizziness the night before or the day of the test.

Younger children with test anxiety may be more likely to have  physical complaints and nightmares while  teens are more likely to keep these issues to themselves for fear of being judged or difficulty articulating their concerns.

Students with text anxiety when faced with an actual test may:

  • Go blank even though they knew the answers in practice exams or studied
  • Become scared and panicked
  • Feel like they can’t breathe
  • Suddenly remember the answers later after handing in the test
  • They may have difficulty focusing and concentrating
  • Have trouble with their vision
  •  Feel they are unable to do well
  • Tell themselves they are stupid
  • Tell themselves they can’t do this and will fail
  •  Believe everyone else is going to succeed on the test but them.
  • Feel scared angry, sad, or hopeless

Many children and teens  in my office become anxious around the end of the year when they have to take “ End of Grade”  tests or EOG’s. They have often been scared by their teachers and schools about these tests.

Shouldn’t everyone should feel a measure of anxiety when taking a test and being evaluated academically?

This is true to some extent. Many parents may have more concern if a child or teen did not have test anxiety. Anxiety is good to the point that it helps you have enough concern to be motivated to do what you need to do, however, test anxiety impairs your ability to be successful. It causes students to UNDERPERFORM. They become so concerned with doing poorly that they forget the things that they do know and are unable to produce the information and answers that they do know.

Certainly, children and teens without academic motivation are also commonly in my practice. Interestingly, these children may also be suffering from test anxiety. Children who have experienced failure because of poor study skills, learning disabilities or mental health conditions such as depression and adhd (which impair attention) may react by avoiding test taking or becoming apathetic to deal with their anxiety. WE know that children with learning disabilities, minorities and girls are have higher rates of test anxiety.

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Medical information obtained from this website is not intended as a substitute for professional care. If you have or suspect you have a problem, you should consult a healthcare provider.