Getting Through High-Stakes Tests Without High Anxiety

Published May 1, 2006

This spring, many high school seniors will take a basic skills exam–either the SAT or ACT. Many younger students will face end-of-grade tests. These high-stakes testing periods can be a cause of anxiety for students … but with a little preparation and test-taking know-how, that anxiety can be eased.

Read on for tips that will help parents prepare their students for this time! The advice comes from Kaplan’s SCORE! Educational Centers–a national chain of after-school learning centers for students from pre-kindergarten through 10th grade–and augmented by Teaching That Makes Sense President Steve Peha. Teaching That Makes Sense is a North Carolina-based company offering an array of services for school districts, teachers, parents, students, and communities.

Kaplan recommends: Reading all directions carefully at least twice, to ensure understanding.

Peha says: By all means, read the directions. But read them in a way that will improve your understanding. Test directions are usually written so that almost every part of every sentence contains vital information. So don’t just read the directions–read them sentence-by-sentence and part-by-part. That is, make sure you break longer sentences carefully into meaningful phrases.

How do you do that? Slow your normal reading rate by about 15 to 20 percent, pause a little longer than usual at the ends of sentences and paragraphs, and read with a hint of expression to encourage accurate phrasing.

Kaplan recommends: Underlining key words in directions.

Peha says: Instead of underlining key words, box the entire phrase of the instructions in which they are contained. Sure, you can remember “compare,” “contrast,” and “define,” but problems on the test will be asking you to compare, contrast, and define certain things. Underlining just the key word and not the other important information associated with it could hamper your understanding and cause you to miss something.

Why use a box rather than underline? Because in complex instructions, your underlines can run together. With boxes, you can keep things separated.

What do you do in really complex instructions where your boxing makes the problem look like a diagram of a football play? List the instructions, part by part, on a separate sheet of scratch paper. It’s a drag, I know, but it will help your understanding and will give you a nifty checklist of things you need to do.

For more information …

For more test-taking tips from Steve Peha, go to