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Educational Psychology

ISSN: 0144-3410 (Print) 1469-5820 (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/cedp20

The Prevalence and Effects of Test Anxiety in


School Children

Angus S. McDonald

To cite this article: Angus S. McDonald (2001) The Prevalence and Effects of Test Anxiety in
School Children, Educational Psychology, 21:1, 89-101, DOI: 10.1080/01443410020019867

To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/01443410020019867

Published online: 01 Jul 2010.

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Educational Psychology, Vol. 21, No. 1, 2001

The Prevalence and Effects of Test Anxiety in


School Children
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ANGUS S. MCDONALD, National Foundation for Educational Research, Slough,


UK

ABSTRACT This paper reviews the literature on the prevalence and effects of test anxiety on
children in compulsory education. Tests are identi® ed as a major source of concern to many
children, and the overall prevalence of test anxiety appears to be increasing, possibly due to
increased testing in schools and pressures associated with this. Studies of children are generally
in accordance with the wider literature, namely that test anxiety impairs test performance,
although this is moderated by individual differences and the testing environment. Methodolog-
ical problems in the literature are discussed and suggestions for further research made.

Introduction
As the level of testing in schools in Britain continues to increase, so the need to
understand the role of test anxiety in performance becomes more important. In a recent
book on test anxiety, two prominent researchers started their chapter with the state-
ment `The detrimental effects of test anxiety on learning and academic performance are
well documented’ (Bedell & Marlowe, 1995, p. 35), whilst another in the same volume
concluded `¼ it would seem that test anxiety is not the main reason why underprepared
groups of students do poorly in exams. Nor is test anxiety the cause of the general
debility in students’ performances on major examinations’ (Ball, 1995, p. 113). It
therefore appears that experts in this area are currently undecided over even the most
basic question: whether test anxiety has an impact on academic performance or not.
These competing conclusions may have resulted for a number of reasons. Due to the
substantial reliance on college students in the study of test anxiety, previous reviews
have tended to include many studies of students who have left compulsory education.
If test anxiety has a signi® cant effect on performance in younger children, highly test
anxious individuals could be under represented for two reasons. First, when given the
choice they may have removed themselves from the education system due to their fear
of exams. Secondly, the hypothesised detrimental effects of test anxiety may have

ISSN 0144-3410 print; ISSN 1469-5820 online/01/010089-13 Ó 2001 Taylor & Francis Ltd
DOI: 10.1080/01443410020019867
90 A. S. McDonald

presented a barrier to them progressing further in their education. Although the


potential effect of these factors on the composition of older samples is uncertain, they
raise suf® cient concern to warrant the study of test anxiety on school-age children.
An additional barrier to interpreting many existing ® ndings is the introduction of
experimental manipulations into studies. These manipulations have prevented the
effects of test anxiety on formal examinations being studied, so additional tests have
been used.
The differences between these and the preparation for an important exam are
considerable. For example, as less importance is likely to be attached to tests used
purely for research purposes, the motivation of both children and teachers to perform
well will be lower, and the degree of preparation far less, than it would be with statutory
tests. However, it is these circumstances that contribute to the emotional reactions that
are central to test anxiety (Hill & Eaton, 1977), so making the validity of such studies
highly questionable.
Although many excellent reviews of test anxiety exist (e.g. Tobias, 1979; Hembree,
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1988; Seipp, 1991), studies included in these have involved people from a wide range
of ages. Because of the potential problems with these studies, the present review will
attempt to redress this limitation by focusing on children in compulsory education.

What is Test Anxiety?


Emotional reactions typically accompany situations where our performance is being
measured or assessed. If at any stage of an evaluation we feel unprepared, unsure of our
ability, or feel we have not performed to our best, we may experience feelings of unease,
apprehension, distress or depression. Alternatively, believing that we are well prepared
and able to perform well on an evaluation will be associated with more positive feelings
such as anticipation, excitement, exhilaration and pride. Test anxiety is most closely,
although not exclusively, associated with the former, more negative set of emotions.
Test anxiety is a speci® c form of a wider group of problems characterised by feelings
of `anxiety’ , problems that in their severest form are diagnosable as psychological
disorders. Anxious states are characterised by excessive degrees of fear, worry and
apprehension. Underlying many speci® c anxieties is a stable disposition to experience
anxious states, typically re¯ ected in the personality trait of neuroticism (e.g. Bolger,
1990). Consistent associations between neuroticism or trait anxiety and test anxiety
have been demonstrated (e.g. Cox, 1962; Sarason, 1959), with trait anxiety being
identi® ed as the best predictor of test anxiety by Hodge et al. (1997). Similarly, general
test anxiety has, in turn, been shown to be linearly related to more speci® c anxieties
such as maths anxiety (Szetla, 1973). However, the association between trait and test
anxiety has typically been in the region of 0.4± 0.6, so justifying the distinction between
these (e.g. Newbegin & Owens, 1996; Sarason, 1959).
As test anxiety is primarily a concern over negative evaluation, it is most closely
associated with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual-IV (DSM-IV: American Psychi-
atric Association (APA), 1994) classi® cation of `social phobia’ . Social phobias are
characterised by `a marked and persistent fear of social or performance situations in
which embarrassment may occur.’ (APA, 1995, p. 422. To be diagnosed as suffering
from a social phobia, DSM-IV states that the individual must:

· show an immediate anxiety response when exposed to the feared social or perform-
ance situation;
Test Anxiety in School Children 91

· show attempts to avoid the social or performance situation, or sometimes endure


it but with extreme fear;
· experience a signi® cant disruption to normal activities due to the avoidance or fear
associated with the situation;
· have experienced the symptoms persistently for at least six months.

The `fear of evaluation’ that is central to test anxiety has two distinct components,
distinguished by Liebert & Morris (1967). The ® rst of these is the cognitive compo-
nent, that is, the mental activity that revolves around the testing situation and its
potential implications for the individual. The cognitive activity that accompanies test
anxiety is probably best conceptualised as `worry’ , or `unwanted, uncontrollable,
aversive cognitive activity associated with negative thoughts and some sense of
emotional discomfort’ (Davey, 1994, p. 379). The thoughts of an anxious child who
expects to perform poorly on a test may be characterised by unfavourable comparisons
with others (e.g. `all my friends will do better than me on this test’ ), doubts about their
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ability (e.g. `I can’ t do tests, so I’ m going to do badly on this one’ ) and negative beliefs
about the consequences of poor test performance (e.g. `if I do badly on this test my
friends will think I’ m stupid’ ). These thoughts are not only present prior to a test, but
also during it, with both quantitative and qualitative differences in cognition being
related to level of test anxiety (Zatz & Chassim, 1985; Prins & Hanewald, 1997). The
second component of test anxiety is autonomic arousal or `emotionality’ . Emotionality
is the physiological component of test anxiety, and can manifest itself as muscle tension,
elevated heart rate, sweating, feeling sick and shaking (APA, 1995).

The Prevalence of Test Anxiety


Test anxiety varies along a continuum, rather than simply being present or not, and this
has lead to interest in what causes individual variations in test anxiety. The origins of
test anxiety are believed by some to lie in the academic expectations parents place on
their children (e.g. Sarason et al., 1960), with children fearing the consequences if they
do not meet these expectations. Recent research has also suggested that praising
children when they do perform well can have paradoxical effects on subsequent
performance. Mueller & Dweck (1998) found that 10± 12-year olds who were praised
for test performance chose subsequent tasks that allowed them to demonstrate their
ability. These children also showed greater belief that test scores were an index of their
intelligence, to such an extent that they would lie to another child about their about
their test results when these were poor. In contrast, when children were praised for their
effort, they tended to choose subsequent tasks that offered greater opportunities for
learning. In relation to test anxiety, when children who had been praised for their
`intelligence’ experienced failure on a test, they perceived this as being due to their low
ability more so than those previously praised for effort. As perceptions of low ability are
central to test anxiety (Sarason & Sarason, 1990), these ® ndings indicate that praise for
achievement may leave children vulnerable to developing anxiety if they subsequently
fail a test. Although the need to assess knowledge through standardised means clearly
remains, this suggests that children may be more resilient to the effects of poor test
performance if the `intelligence’ aspect of these is minimised.
As children move through the educational system they typically experience a greater
frequency of testing. With this comes greater expectations and pressure from parents
and schools to perform well, expectations that may become internalised in the child.
92 A. S. McDonald

Children also become better judges of their own performance with age and receive a
greater amount of feedback on their performance. Comparisons of performance with
peers will also become important (Nicholls, 1976) and, as not all children in a class can
excel, competition with others in the class can only serve to increase anxiety surround-
ing tests. The trend of publicly evaluating schools through test results can only serve to
further increase the pressures on teachers, pressures which children are unlikely to be
immune to (Hill, 1972; Sarason et al., 1960).
Many factors have the potential to affect the development of test anxiety, with not all
of these asserting an in¯ uence at the same points in a child’ s development. Although all
evaluative situations will be accompanied by some emotional reactions, it is the
individual’ s past experiences and beliefs, that have been shaped by a multitude of
factors, that will mould their unique reactions to a test situation.
In assessing the frequency and severity of test anxiety in children, two approaches
have been taken. The ® rst of these has been to look at how test-related fears compare
to other potentially stressful events children may encounter. The second has been to
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look at mean levels of test anxiety or the proportion of children exceeding a given
cut-score on speci® c test anxiety measures. Evidence from these approaches is reviewed
below.
Due to the wide range of concerns children could possibly have, one way researchers
have approached this area is to collapse extensive lists of concerns and worries into a
smaller number of underlying categories. This approach has been taken by Ollendick
(1983) in the development of the Revised Fear Survey Schedule for Children (FSSC-
R). From a factor analysis of 80 items, ® ve underlying fears were identi® ed, including
`fear of failure and criticism’ on which the items `taking a test’ and `failing a test’ loaded
heavily. King et al. (1989) subsequently administered the FSSC-R to over 3000
Australians between the ages of 8 and 16. They noted that whereas fears generally
decreased with age, this trend was not observed in the `fear of failure and criticism’
factor. A similar pattern was observed by Ollendick et al. (1989) in a study of American
and Australian children and adolescents, although here fear of failing a test was seen to
increase slightly with age.
Surveys conducted in the UK have also revealed that tests are a major source of
concern to children. For example, Kyriacou & Butcher (1993) constructed a 30-item
questionnaire to assess the sources of stress in 15- and-16-year-olds. The item `exams’
was the most frequently reported source of stress in both boys and girls, with `deadlines
for assessed work’ , and `revision’ the second and third. Interestingly, teachers were less
convinced that exams were such stressful experiences, as they rated these the joint
fourth and seventh for boys and girls respectively. Gallagher & Miller (1996) adminis-
tered the 138-item `Things I Worry About’ scale to almost 4000 15± 18-year-olds in
Northern Ireland. Of the 13 areas of concern identi® ed from this scale, `schoolwork’
was the major source of worry. An analysis of individual items revealed that six of the
top ten were related to schoolwork or exams, including the most prevalent worry `will
I pass my exams?’ . However, Yamamoto et al. (1998) have presented somewhat
contrary evidence. In their study of 366 children from England, Wales and Northern
Ireland, getting poor marks in a test was only rated as the thirteenth most stressful item
out of 20.
Surveys show that anxiety and concern surrounding educational evaluation, and tests
in particular, is considerable. Interpreting these results is not, however, straightforward.
First, the variety of instruments used by researchers makes synthesising results dif® cult.
Secondly, the position of items associated with test-related stress is not independent of
Test Anxiety in School Children 93

other items on the scale. For example, some researchers have focused on stressors only
found in the school environment (e.g. Kyriacou & Butcher, 1993). As a result, items on
the scale have only re¯ ected mild to moderate stressors, so allowing test-related items
to appear relatively stressful. Other instruments have included a wider range of items
(e.g. Yamamoto et al., 1998), some of which could cause considerable distress (e.g.
`losing a parent’ , `being hit by a car/truck’ ). When evaluated against such items, tests
appear to arouse relatively less stress.
The second approach to assessing the prevalence of test anxiety has been to examine
scores on dedicated test anxiety measures. The measure most frequently used in this
form of study has been the Test Anxiety Scale for Children (TASC: Sarason et al.,
1960). However, as Johnson (1979) has noted, the lack of adequate norms for the
TASC has hampered this approach. An early study by Kondas (1967) suggests that test
anxiety was a problem for 10% of school age children, but subsequent studies suggested
this ® gure was closer to 25 or 30% (e.g. Nottelmann & Hill, 1977). More recently,
Turner et al. (1993) identi® ed the prevalence of test anxiety to be 41% in African
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American children aged between 8 and 12 years. This data suggests that the prevalence
of test anxiety had increased over time, possibly due to more frequent testing and
testing at a younger age increasing anxiety through the exposure model advocated by
King et al. (1989).
In the absence of appropriate norms, measures can be used to look at how mean
levels of test anxiety change over time and between groups. As was seen above, general
fear levels typically decrease with age although evaluation and academic fears do not
follow this trend (King et al., 1989; Ollendick et al., 1989). In studies that have used
speci® c test anxiety scales, anxiety levels typically increase with age (e.g. Sarason et al.,
1958; Hill & Sarason, 1966; Hill & Wig® eld, 1984). However, both Stevenson & Odom
(1965) and Manley & Rosemire (1972) found variations in this pattern between males
and females, and Araki (1992) found an increase-decrease-increase pattern in Japanese
children.
Comparisons between males and females have revealed consistent sex differences in
test anxiety levels, with females scoring higher than males. As with age, these differ-
ences have been observed in surveys of general fears (e.g. King et al., 1989) and on
speci® c test anxiety measures (e.g. Stevenson & Odom, 1965; Manley & Rosemire,
1972; O’ Tuel & Terry, 1979; Crocker et al., 1988; Zeidner & Sa® r, 1989; Di Maria &
Di Nuovo, 1990; Araki, 1992). This effect of sex parallels the differences in the
prevalence of anxiety-related disorders seen in adults (e.g. Reiger et al., 1988). It has
been suggested that this difference is due to girls being more willing to report
experiencing anxiety (e.g. Hill & Sarason, 1966), and has resulted in the use of different
cut-off scores to identify signi® cant levels of test anxiety in boys and girls (Beidel &
Turner, 1988). Using this approach, test anxiety was seen to be approximately equally
prevalent in boys and girls by Turner et al. (1993).
Of the various approaches to assessing the extent of test anxiety, only the use of
standardised tests with established cut-scores can provide actual prevalence estimates.
Other approaches have provided different information, for example showing that test
anxiety tends to increase with age. Self-reports of test anxiety levels have been consist-
ently higher in females, but this may be due to their greater willingness to report anxiety
symptoms, as adjusted cut-scores have shown approximately equal prevalence rates in
boys and girls. What this evidence does show is that, regardless of the methodology,
tests and evaluation situations are a considerable source of concern and anxiety to a
signi® cant proportion of school children.
94 A. S. McDonald

Test Anxiety and Test Performance


The study of the relationship between anxiety and performance can be traced back to
the early 1900s, particularly to the work of Yerkes & Dodson (1908). What has become
known as the Yerkes± Dodson Law, describes both the facilitating and debilitating
effects of arousal on performance as an inverted `U’ . In terms of a child sitting a test,
a degree of arousal or anxiety would be seen as bene® cial to performance. Without any
fear of failure or encouragement to perform well on the test, a child is unlikely to put
adequate effort into preparation or be suf® ciently motivated when actually taking the
test, and so will not perform to their fullest potential. If before or during a test a child’ s
level of anxiety is above the optimum level, they may also fail to demonstrate their true
abilities. Under these circumstances fear of the actual test may disrupt preparation and
cause suf® cient distress during the test to impair performance. Alternatively, the child
may take an avoidant approach to the test, failing to prepare adequately by denying its
importance or missing preparation lessons and, in extreme cases, failing to arrive for the
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test itself.
Despite the in¯ uence of this theory, test anxiety has been conceptualised almost
exclusively as having debilitating effects on performance. One notable exception has
been Alpert & Haber’ s (1960) development of scales to independently measure facilita-
tory and debilitatory test anxiety. However, this approach has not been widely adopted,
and despite their attempt to design orthogonal scales, correlations with other test
anxiety measures show this has not been achieved (Sarason & Sarason, 1990; Tryon,
1980).
The correlational approach to the study of test anxiety has been most frequently
adopted. Here the link between continuous scores on a measure of test anxiety or
groups divided on the basis of such scores, and attainment scores have been studied. In
relation to compulsory examination performance, higher levels of test anxiety have been
associated with lower test scores or grades in a number of studies (e.g. Sarason, 1963;
Cox, 1964; Gjemse, 1972; O’ Tuel & Terry, 1979; Sharma & Rao, 1983; Zatz &
Chassin, 1985; Crocker et al., 1988; Horn & Dollinger, 1989; Prins et al., 1994). This
effect has been observed across a range of academic subjects, such as science, French
and social studies, in addition to the more frequently studied subjects of maths and
English. Similar results have also been observed when non-scheduled ability tests have
been used (e.g. Sarason et al., 1958, 1964; Stevenson & Odom, 1965; Hill & Sarason,
1966; Szetela, 1973; Young & Brown, 1973; Pintrich & De Groot, 1990; Turner et al.,
1993).
Not all studies have reported this link between test anxiety and performance (e.g.
Sarnoff et al., 1959; Sud & Katoch, 1994); or have observed it to be weak (e.g. French,
1962) or inconsistent between tests of different abilities (e.g. Cox, 1964; Hodapp,
1989). With these must also be considered studies that have not been published due to
their non-signi® cant ® ndings. However, sample sizes have varied widely and will have
a major impact on whether results are reported as being `signi® cant’ or not.
Overall, most studies have reported negative correlations between test anxiety and
performance, with coef® cients of up to 2 0.5 and 2 0.6 being observed (e.g. Sarason,
1963), although more frequently these have been between 2 0.2 and 2 0.3 (e.g. Araki,
1992; Crocker et al., 1988; Payne et al., 1983). Even these more modest correlations
account for between 4 and 9% of variance in test performance, and Rosenthal & Rubin
(1982) have shown that a correlation of 0.2 can actually mean a 20% difference in the
numbers passing or failing a test.
Test Anxiety in School Children 95

In an attempt to isolate the independent effects of test anxiety on test scores, IQ or


level of ability have been controlled for. Under these conditions the negative effect of
test anxiety has often remained in a weakened form (e.g. Hill & Sarason, 1966; Szetela,
1973), although this has not always been the case (e.g. O’ Tuel & Terry, 1979).
However, these covariates are themselves confounded, at least partially, with test
anxiety as exams almost invariably form part of their make-up.
Test anxiety has also been observed to have a detrimental impact on aggregate ability
measures, rather than isolated assessments (e.g. Payne et al., 1983; van der Ploeg &
Hulshof, 1984; Zeidner & Sa® r, 1989; Araki, 1992; Comunian, 1993; Call et al., 1994;
Newbegin & Owens, 1996), although not all researchers have replicated this (e.g.
Walter et al., 1964). However, the use of aggregate attainment measures presents
dif® culties for interpretation, as components of aggregate grades have not been ade-
quately speci® ed by researchers; that is, the extent to which they are composed of
exams, essays, reports, etc. The conditions under which these assessments are conduc-
ted vary considerably and, as will be seen below, these can interact with test anxiety.
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Pintrich & De Groot’ s (1990) work empirically demonstrated this dif® culty, as they
found test anxiety to signi® cantly predict overall grades and exam performance, but not
performance on classwork and essays. Walter et al. (1964) and O’ Tuel & Terry (1979)
had previously presented similar results. Studies that have used aggregate attainment
measures could therefore lead to the mistaken conclusion that test anxiety has a
detrimental impact on all forms of assessment.
A limited number of longitudinal studies have investigated how test anxiety affects
change in academic ability over time. In one of the earliest, Lighthall et al. (1959) found
anxiety levels to be related to change in scores on two ability tests between ® fth and
seventh grade in American children. On what was considered to be a more `traditional’
group ability test, low anxiety children showed a greater gain than high anxiety children,
whereas this pattern was reversed for a more `game-like’ test. From this, the authors
suggested that test characteristics interact with anxiety level, but noted that further
work was required to identify what speci® c test characteristics were important. Later
work by Sarason et al. (1964) supported the view that higher levels of test anxiety were
related to smaller learning gains, although more recent work by Fincham et al. (1989)
has failed to replicate this.

Mediators in the Test Anxiety-performance Link


Higher levels of test anxiety appear to impair test performance, although considerable
variations in the strength of this association occur both within and between studies.
Whilst some of this variation will be due to methodological factors, aspects of the
individual taking the test, the test itself and the environment the test is taken in, have
also been shown to affect this link. This research will now be summarised.
As children develop, the link between self-reports of test anxiety and test perform-
ance or achievement appear to become stronger. For example, Sarason et al. (1958,
1964) found this association to increase from grade two to six in American school
children, with similar ® ndings being reported by Hill & Sarason (1966), Payne et al.
(1983) and Stevenson & Odom (1965). The comprehensive review of test anxiety by
Hembree (1988) further supported this observation. The most likely explanation for
this link is the observed increase of test anxiety with age, with increased experience of
testing leading some children to show more adverse reactions to tests (e.g. Hembree,
1988; King et al., 1989). Related to this point, children are more likely to be able to
96 A. S. McDonald

provide reliable self-reports of anxiety with age, so increasing the chances of signi® cant
correlations being observed.
The test anxiety-performance association can also differ according to the sex of the
child, being generally stronger for females (e.g. Sarason, 1963; Walter et al., 1964;
Gjesme, 1972; Payne et al., 1983; Araki, 1992, study 2), although an opposite trend
was found by Comunian (1993). A child’ s ability is an additional factor that can
mediate the effects of test anxiety, and which can also interact with sex. Sharma & Rao
(1983) and van der Ploeg & Hulsof (1984) have argued that test anxiety disproportion-
ately affects children of higher ability, but Gjesme (1972) identi® ed greatest effects on
high ability girls and boys of moderate ability. However, results on sex differences must
be interpreted with caution due to the possible reporting bias in anxiety symptoms
noted earlier.
Socio-economic status is a further factor that has been studied in relation to test
anxiety. Hodge et al. (1997) have found that children from lower socio-economic
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backgrounds, and those for whom English was not their native language, experienced
more exam-related distress. Willig et al. (1983) previously offered slightly different
conclusions, suggesting that it is those on the borderline of socio-economic groups
who experience greatest test anxiety, although its actual effect on test scores was
seen to be less for `blacks’ than `whites’ by Payne et al. (1983). Despite this evi-
dence, and their own observations of the in¯ uence of socio-economic status on Israeli
children, Zeidner & Sa® r (1989) concluded that differences in test anxiety were not
great enough to account for observed variations in performance between groups, a
view supported by Crocker et al. (1988).
Interactionist perspectives view test anxiety as resulting from a predisposition to
experience anxiety and the demands of the situation (e.g. Sarason & Sarason, 1990;
Speilberger & Vagg, 1995). For example, a usually test anxious child may not experi-
ence excessive anxiety during a low-stakes test which they feel con® dent about,
although they may during a high-stakes test. Studies that have manipulated test
conditions have generally supported the interactionist perspective. For example, Hill &
Eaton (1977) found that high anxious children performed worse under exam condi-
tions, compared to `success’ conditions that included a removal of time pressures. Plass
& Hill (1986) later partially replicated this effect of time pressure, but found it to
interact with sex. Whereas removing the time pressure increased the performance of
high anxious boys, high anxious girls performed best under timed conditions. Although
Young & Brown (1973) failed to ® nd effects of timed instructions on high anxious
children, they observed low anxious females to perform better under untimed condi-
tions, but low anxious boys to perform worse. Taking a different approach, Zatz &
Chassin (1985) found that high anxious children performed worse in classrooms where
the emphasis was on academic competition. The impact of the evaluative situation on
performance is further demonstrated through the observation that test anxiety is
signi® cantly associated with performance on tests, but not with grades on classwork,
essays and reports (e.g. Pintrich & De Groot, 1990).
Many variables have been identi® ed as important mediators in the anxiety-perform-
ance link, although only the main ones have been dealt with here. Some of
these ® ndings con¯ ict, possibly re¯ ecting the complex interplay of factors in the
development of test anxiety, but suf® cient consistency exists to provide some conclu-
sions. The anxiety-performance association increases as children become older and
is generally stronger for females, although this may re¯ ect a reporting bias, and those
Test Anxiety in School Children 97

of higher ability. Although a child may be prone to experiencing test anxiety, this is not
inevitable in testing situations, as characteristics of both the individual and the testing
situation interact to determine the level of test anxiety.

Methodological Comments
The test anxiety literature has relied heavily on correlational studies which provide no
information on causality: does test anxiety cause low attainment or does lack of
knowledge result in children becoming anxious about tests? Evidence favours the
former possibility, as under favourable conditions the performance of anxious children
increases considerably (e.g. Hill & Eaton, 1977). Despite this, these ® ndings do not
preclude anxiety having effects on other aspects of learning, and recent work suggests
that anxiety can affect the learning, encoding and retrieval of information (e.g. McK-
eachie, 1984; Pekrun, 1992; Tobias, 1992). Future studies need to simultaneously
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explore causal links between anxiety, learning and performance.


In attempting to distinguish the in¯ uence of anxiety from general ability on test
scores, measures of general ability have been controlled for. Unfortunately, these scores
themselves typically involve information gathered under test conditions and so can be
contaminated by test anxiety. By partialling these out, the in¯ uence of test anxiety on
the target test score will be underestimated. Studies using ability data uncontaminated
by test anxiety are necessary if we are to more fully understand the relative impact of
test anxiety, ability and test environments on performance.
Longitudinal research offers to provide stimulating information on the interaction
between test anxiety and learning gains over time, although few adequate studies have
been conducted. If this methodology is used, careful attention must be paid to the
rationale of studying the effects of test anxiety on change in ability over time. Test
anxiety primarily shows an effect on demonstration of ability (Hill & Eaton, 1977;
Hembree, 1988), its in¯ uence on the acquisition of ability is yet to be adequately
demonstrated. What longitudinal studies may have observed is the increasing corre-
lation between test anxiety and performance that comes with age (e.g. Payne et al.,
1983), rather than a real in¯ uence of anxiety on learning. If anxiety is hypothesised to
affect learning, existing test anxiety inventories will have little validity in measuring this
and so the development of new instruments is needed.
In future work, more attention needs to be paid to the outcome measures used. The
dif® culties in interpreting studies using compulsory exams, ability tests, class-based
work and aggregate attainment measures have been touched on. The detailed examin-
ation of how these different forms of assessment, and different components within them
(e.g. verbal, mathematical or creative processes), are related to test anxiety must be
undertaken. A greater understanding of this should aid the development of fairer forms
of assessment.
Finally, the structure of the relationship between test anxiety and performance needs
to be de® ned more precisely; does the presence of any anxiety have a detrimental effect
or does this occur only when it reaches a certain level? A linear relationship has been
implied, if only implicitly through the statistical methods most studies adopt. Although
attempts have been made to address this, for example through accounting for underly-
ing ability level, it was argued above that these are ¯ awed due to the confounding.
Again, controlling for ability with measures known to be unaffected by test anxiety
should provide valuable information on this point.
98 A. S. McDonald

Conclusions
This paper has reviewed evidence on the prevalence of test anxiety and its association
with the test performance of children in compulsory education. Two main ® ndings
emerge from the literature. First, fear of exams and test situations is widespread and
appears to be becoming more prevalent, possibly due to the increasing frequency of
testing and importance placed on testing within education systems. Secondly, test
anxiety has a detrimental effect on test performance and, although correlations between
test anxiety and exam performance are modest, its in¯ uence on the number of children
passing or failing an exam is potentially considerable. The other main ® nding to emerge
from this review concerns limitations in the existing test anxiety literature which need
to be addressed if our understanding is to progress. Of these, the most pressing are the
need to specify more precisely the composition of attainment measures and to provide
control measures of ability that are uncontaminated by test anxiety.
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Acknowledgements
This work was conducted whilst the author was at the National Foundation for
Educational Research (NFER), Slough, UK. He would like to ackowledge the support
of the NFER Research and Development Fund in conducting this review, the work of
Pauline Bene® ed in conducting the literature searches, and the valuable comments of
Chris Whetton and Susan James on earlier drafts of this paper.

Correspondence: A. S. McDonald, Team Focus Limited, Heritage House, 13 Bridge


Street, Maidenhead, Berkshire SL6 8LR, UK. Tel: 1 44 (0) 1628 637338. E-mail:
angus.mcdonald@teamfocus.uk.com

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