Header for an image from an anxiety blog by Open Door Education, a tutoring company in Acton and Concord Massachusetts

Recognizing and Dealing with Test Anxiety

Recent statistics show that more than 8% of American teens have diagnosed general anxiety disorders, and the numbers are rising each year. Among teens not suffering from generalized anxiety disorder, another group suffers from something called “test anxiety,” and that, too, is increasing in incidence.


According to the American Test Anxieties Association (AMTAA), the professional organization for mental health researchers and practitioners specializing in diagnosis and treatment of the syndrome, 16 to 20% of American teens suffer from severe test anxiety, and another 18% suffer from a moderate version.


How do you know if your student suffers from it? Don’t all people feel anxious when taking a timed test? Many teens describe it themselves as panicking, freezing, or blanking on tests, regardless of the number of hours they studied or how well they know the content. They might also have other symptoms of any panic attack: dry mouth, rapid heartbeat, dizziness, sweaty palms, and nausea.


How can education professionals recognize it? Both moderate and high test anxiety results in confused reasoning, more mistakes than seem reasonable considering the students’ knowledge of the material, reduced short- and long-term working memory, and, of course, more mistakes and lower test scores. AMTAA research shows that students with test anxiety score on average 12 percentile points below low-anxiety students, both at school and on standardized tests.


Open Door co-owner and tutor Erin Webb explains, “Anxiety isn’t a zero-sum game. Just because a student doesn’t suffer from generalized anxiety doesn’t mean anxiety can’t play a role in that student’s ability to recall information or focus in a testing environment.”


Erin adds that if students struggle with content knowledge the tutor is sure they know, or have trouble processing written texts no matter how strong their reading fluency, it’s important to question how much pressure they are experiencing in the moment of testing. Other signs are over-deliberation among answer choices, small computational errors, and difficulty sustaining energy over the test. Through close observation, tutors can help frustrated test-anxious students recognize what’s holding them back. Identifying the problem helps students reduce negative self-talk; they are trying hard, they do have mastery, and it’s anxiety that’s preventing them from achieving their test score goal.


What can parents do? Most importantly, if you see that your teens apply themselves in school, study, and comprehend the material being tested, yet still can’t achieve the same scores as their peers, avoid judgment or criticism. Ask them about their test taking experiences, and gently suggest that anxiety may be influencing their performance; usually, they’ll welcome your empathy and open up. If that fails, try meeting with teachers to determine whether you are correct in identifying the gap between students’ effort, content mastery, and test performance; of course, school psychologists and guidance counselors are also excellent resources.


Should you decide to seek outside help, one of the most effective treatments for the syndrome is Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT). John Dalton is a leading researcher in the field of teen anxiety, particularly social anxiety that interferes with academic success. A CBT practitioner who advises many educational professionals, Dalton teaches teens that although fear is real, thoughts are not facts. He guides them through written work identifying first their fears and worst case scenarios, and then descriptions of what actually happened the last time they faced similar stressful situations. Finally, they write realistic predictions of what might result the next time. For example, the last time they feared flunking a math test, did they? And even if they did, what happened? Were they able to retake that test? Bring their grade up another way? Did it prevent them from moving forward? Dalton stresses teens suffering from anxiety tend to catastrophize, and pulling them back from that cliff is essential to minimizing their fears.


CBT exposes teens to the anxiety-causing situation itself. For example, if a teen is afraid of appearing silly in public, Dalton has the teen purposefully act silly in public and notice how few people notice. If a few people laugh or point, the teen may experience a few moments of embarrassment, after which life goes on relatively unchanged. Similarly, test anxious students who take advantage of Open Door practice tests face their fears early in their testing cycle when the stakes are lower and, in most cases, catastrophize less when heading into the actual exam.


Additional therapies are many: mindfulness exercises; yoga; art, music, and writing therapy; hypnosis; and other modalities.


If we suspect your student suffers from test anxiety, we will notify you; likewise, if you suspect your teen struggles with it, please let their tutor know. Open Door’s mission includes preparing students not just for tests, but also for lifelong learning, confidence, and success.




Read more about identifying and treating test anxiety at the following links:

Mayo Clinic 

Reducing Test Anxiety

In addition, the AMTAA highly recommends a CD, Tame Test Anxiety, available online and in bookstores.


Artist Amy Zhu displays her art in our Concord and Acton tutoring offices.

Student Spotlight: Amy Zhu, November and December 2017 Student Artist

November’s Student Artist, whose pieces are featured in both our Concord and Acton offices through the holidays, is Amy Zhu, a junior at Acton-Boxborough Regional High School. We asked her some questions about her artwork on display, inspirations, techniques, and goals and aspirations. Here is what she shared.

My artwork is usually a combination of two separate ideas. For instance, if one day I’m in the mood to paint something you’d see underwater, and I’m also thinking about a pretty dress my friend might have worn, I put the two together and incorporate many elements into a painting. Often it’s something realistic, but with a slight quirk to make it more my style. Also, I tend to lean toward romantic colors and styles that complement one another.

I honestly take inspiration from everything around me: my friends, my school, my environment. All play a role in shaping my ideas and what I want to draw and paint.

The painting in the Acton Office of the woman in turquoise is in memory of my grandmother. She passed away not too long ago, and my family was of course very sad. I felt the best way to immortalize her was through a painting. The title is “Spring Will Come.” She is looking somberly down at a flower, but that flower is a representation of new life, meaning that life moves on, and as time passes, everyone will find happiness again. This painting also happened to be what I was working on when two seniors at Acton-Boxborough Regional High School passed away. I hope it serves not only as a message for my family, but also for my school community.

The drawing of a school with glowing orange clouds, which is on display in the Concord office, represents Acton-Boxborough Regional … and more. It’s more of a whimsical piece, and doesn’t really have much meaning to it. I just thought it would be interesting if that was what our school looked like after hours when no one is there to witness it. What if school was more than a regular old building, and there was a side to it that no one knew? That’s what was going through my head at the time.

I am currently experimenting with textiles and design. I have been painting canvases and creating dresses out of my own patterns. The challenge I made for myself was to build a dress that was adjustable and could fit all body types. It’s been really fun seeing my ideas come to life on people.

I have been struggling with finding a career path that would suit me. On the one hand, I would love to major in the fine arts. On the other, I’m also very interested in biology. In addition, I’m scared of not having financial stability. It’s scary not knowing what might happen to you. However, I have come to realize recently that everything is not black and white. I would love to pursue a career in STEM where my knowledge of art would come in handy, or create statement artworks that target economic and environmental issues. Or maybe I’ll do both. Who knows?! That’s the beauty of life, though, you really can do anything you want if you put your mind to it. By no means should an artist ever feel they can’t work in another field. Art is such a useful tool in life–it can take you anywhere you want to go.


Artist Amy Zhu displays her art in our Concord and Acton tutoring offices.
Amy’s art on display in our Concord office