Examinations are perhaps one of the main methods of assessment in education. Unfortunately, there are some individuals who are so fearful of such events that performance is impaired. Test anxiety is believed to be the trait that predisposes individuals to react negatively to examinations and tests. One way in which it is believed that test anxiety affects performance is by increasing susceptibility to distraction from task-irrelevant material. However, few studies have directly investigated this impairment. An experiment was therefore conducted to investigate susceptibility to distraction in high and low test-anxious students. The task used was based on one developed by Mathews, May, Mogg and Eysenck (1990), which distinguishes between focused attention and selective search. In order to determine whether a specific susceptibility to distraction exists, the distractors were varied in terms of valence and relevance to examinations. Since test anxiety is a situation-specific trait, an evaluation-related stressor was used to trigger test-anxious reactions. A specific susceptibility to distraction from threat was found amongst high test-anxious participants who received the evaluation-related stressor. However, this effect was only found when participants were using focused attention. This suggests that the disturbed performance often found to be associated with test anxiety might be due to an inability to ignore threatening material when attempting to focus attentional resources. These results are discussed in light of current theories of test anxiety and implications for educational practice. Copyright © 2001 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.