Do teenagers who feel anxious about testing achieve worse GCSE grades?
By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 15 June 2022
Before all our lives were turned upside-down by the coronavirus pandemic, there was much concern over how GCSE examinations were affecting young people’s mental health. For some young people, the stress and anxiety induced by these examinations can be severe. This could then become a vicious circle, whereby anxiety about the exams can lead young people to achieve lower grades on them.
I explore this issue in my new academic paper, investigating whether GCSE grades are indeed lower amongst Year 11 pupils who suffer from high-levels of test anxiety.
In PISA 2015, a sample of around 5,000 Year 11 pupils were asked a series of questions designed to capture their anxiety around testing and assessment. Specifically, they had to state – using a four-point scale – the extent they agreed or disagreed with the following statements:
- I often worry that it will be difficult for me taking a test.
- I worry that I will get poor grades at school.
- Even if I am well prepared for a test I feel very anxious.
- I get very tense when I study for a test.
- I get nervous when I don’t know how to solve a task at school.
Using responses to these statements, Year 11s have been divided into ten equally sized “test anxiety” groups. I then compare how GCSE grades (on examinations taken in May/June 2016) compare across these 10 groups for children with the same background characteristics, similar levels of academic abilities (as measured by their performance on the low-stakes PISA test) and who attend the same school.
The headline finding from my new research can be found in Figure 1. Along the horizontal axis are our ten “test anxiety” groups, running from least (left) to most (right) anxious. The vertical axis then plots the average difference in GCSE mathematics grades, using the 9 to 1 scale.
Overall, the line in this graph is pretty flat – the relationship between how anxious Year 11s feel about testing and their GCSE outcomes is actually quite weak. Indeed, even if we take the difference between the most anxious and least anxious groups, there is still only a difference of one-fifth of a GCSE grade.
In other words, and perhaps in contrast to what many might expect, no clear relationship between test anxiety and examination performance is found.
Figure 1. The link between test-anxiety decile and GCSE maths gradesNotes: Figures refer to differences in grades. Positive (negative) values indicates higher (lower) GCSE grades. Model controls for demographics, school fixed-effects and PISA scores. Figure based upon Jerrim (2021: Appendix Figure B1)
Although stress and anxiety about GCSEs is clearly an important challenge facing some young people, this problem does not – on the whole – seem to have a large impact upon the grades that they leave school with.
This could be due to the motivating impact of such anxiety (e.g. leading teenagers to spend more time revising and preparing for the exams) being enough to offset the potential negative effects (e.g. test-anxious young people not being able to fully focus when they are revising). Another possibility is that some of those young people with the very highest levels of anxiety may not have been in school – or refused to take part in the PISA test – because of their mental health. Alternatively, it may indicate that the measures necessary to alleviate such problems – such as extra time when taking the examinations or support for text-anxious young people in their GCSE preparation – are already in place.