Test anxiety is characterized by physiological arousal, negative affect and worry in situations when people are evaluated or examined which lowers their performance. It is most common among students and it has been estimated that around 30% of the student population of the world experiences some form of test anxiety. Anxiety has been studied since the early 1950s but it was Charles Spielberger (1972) who first divided it into two types: chronic or trait anxiety and temporary or state anxiety. Trait anxiety is the individual propensity to be anxious and to find certain situations dangerous and threatening. State anxiety, on the other hand, is a temporary state of uneasiness accompanied by physiological and behavioral reactions connected to the autonomic nervous system which usually varies in intensity. Consequently, test anxiety is a form of state anxiety because it occurs only in situations when people are examined and evaluated and performance is of great importance.
According to Liebert and Morris (1967) test anxiety consists of two subcomponents, namely emotionality and worry, because it can manifest itself cognitively or physically. The emotionality element is the affective dimension of anxiety and describes the physical reactions of students in relation to performance. The most common symptoms that students may experience while being examined or evaluated include nausea, cramps, faintness, excessive sweating, headache, dry mouth, increased breathing rate, fast heartbeat or tense muscles. The worry element refers to cognitive distress and it negatively affects concentration, attention and information processing. It is characterized by mental blank-outs, that is knowing the answers after, but not during the test, negative thoughts about past performance or consequences of failure and negative self-perceptions and expectations. The inability to concentrate and the feelings of inadequacy and self-condemnation indigenous to the worry component have a more detrimental effect on academic performance than the emotionality element.
On the basis of the state-trait anxiety theory Spielberger and colleagues developed the Test Anxiety Inventory (TAI) to measure an individual's emotionality and worry. TAI is a self-report psychometric scale which measures the individual differences in test anxiety as a situation-specific trait. The test consists of 20 items and the respondents indicate on a four-point Likert-type scale how frequently they experience specific symptoms of anxiety before, during and after examinations. The test score shows the total test anxiety level (TA) as well as the measures of the two components; worry (W) and emotionality (E). It is an eight to ten-minute test consisting of one printed page of all 20 items. Eight of the questions measure the W component, another eight measure the E component and the other four determine only the test anxiety level. While TAI measures test anxiety in high school and college students, the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory (STAI), also designed by Spielberger, measures anxiety in adults. It differentiates between temporary and chronic anxiety and helps professionals determine whether their patients suffer from depression or have temporary feelings of anxiety. STAI's simplicity is appropriate for evaluating individuals with lower educational backgrounds. It consists of 40 questions with four possible answers written for sixth grade reading level.
Other theories about test anxiety such as Wine's cognitive-attentional theory (1971) explain that the negative influence of test anxiety is a result of the individuals' preoccupation with worry and fear of failure or their focus on random thoughts. As a result the poor concentration leaves less attention for task-directed efforts and therefore impairs performance. Despite their knowledge and preparation test-anxious individuals have poorer performance than non-test-anxious individuals who gain from their ability to be more focused on the task.
Poor performance of test-anxious students can be also a direct result of "deficit in study skills." Students' awareness of their deficient skills and unpreparedness further increases their anxiety level and reduces their performance even more. In contrast, excessively ambitious students also experience severe test anxiety because they are afraid that they will not meet their own personal standards. During examinations overambitious students worry and compare themselves unfavorably to others and that impairs their test performance significantly. Their high standards and desire for maximum success have a negative impact on the test anxiety levels and sometimes those students perform poorly than less prepared or ambitious students who tend to be less test anxious.
Even very young children are found to be test anxious and this interferes with their future academic performance and advancement. For example, it was discovered that by the end of elementary school highly test-anxious children were two years behind in basic reading and arithmetic skills as a result of test anxiety.