Testing accommodations for anxiety

Parents often ask me questions about how they can best support their child with what they’re learning. Many feel they aren’t doing enough, or aren’t doing the right thing, to help their child succeed. I see a lot of these questions more than once, so I’ve decided to collect them and post them here for other parents to read, in case that advice is helpful.

All my advice is based on my own experience from almost 10 years of working with students with learning differences, and on my M.Ed. training at Villanova University.


[…] As for test day, we believe her anxiety got the best of her.  She was getting very anxious the day before.  Then my wife and I were gone for that weekend and she didn’t have anyone to talk her off the ledge so to speak. I plan on scheduling a call with you next week to discuss a plan.  We are hoping that the experience of “the known” will help [my daughter] on subsequent taking of this test.  Are there any adjustments to testing procedures for students that are diagnosed with Anxiety that we should explore further? 

Bill M.

Hey Bill,
I see, and I’m sorry to hear that was [your daughter’s] experience with the test. Luckily, most students see score increases on their second test, even if they don’t prep in between the tests, for exactly the reasons you said: the test is now a known quantity, and they feel comfortable with it.
I focus most of my efforts on this feeling of test-preparedness in the last week of prep, but I’m concerned I didn’t do enough to put [your daughter] at ease. Before the next test, I hope to focus a bit more on the psychological preparedness portion of the test, though we can’t neglect math.
The ACT doesn’t often provide accommodations for students with diagnosed anxiety. There’s some vague language they have about it needing to constitute a “mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities”, so anxiety alone almost never qualifies. If [your daughter] had an IEP or 504 plan (which she doesn’t, that I’m aware of–though I’ve never asked you about it, only her, so perhaps you can confirm), then it would be worth pursuing, but as it stands, I don’t think that’s an option for her. A school counselor would be able to give you a good second opinion.
If [your daughter] were approved for accommodations, they would almost certainly be for 50% extra time on the test, which would make a huge difference in her scores. Time is still her only real limiting factor in English, Reading, and Science. Extra time would help in math, though not as much, since there’s still some review of material to be done there.
Hope this helps. Happy to hop on the phone/Zoom and talk about it when you’re ready.

There many reasons a student may be granted testing accommodations, but anxiety usually isn’t one of them. Besides, the ACT/SAT’s catch all approach to accommodations is extra time, and that’s not a great way to address anxiety around the test. The other accommodations they offer have to do with accessing the test (proctor, scribe, test reader, etc), which aren’t helpful, either.

Unfortunately, this means students diagnosed with anxiety but without any other complicating factors are unlikely to be approved for accommodations.

I usually approach testing anxiety in a way similar to exposure therapy. We talk about the test, practice the test, imagine what the test will be like, and make a bunch of test-related decisions all before test day actually comes. That ensure the students is as ready as they can be on test day and spends their mental energy performing instead of worrying. This is a very common issue, especially with high school juniors, and especially for young women. If you have any questions about testing anxiety or want to discuss a Test Day Plan to help ease that anxiety, schedule a consultation using the link below and we’ll find a time to talk.