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I’m more than a test.

Does high stakes testing work? How do you think standardized testing affects mental health?

Is standardized testing really needed? During March of 2022, Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis signed a bill revamping the state’s testing system. “Today, we come not to praise the FSA (Florida Standards Assessments), but to bury it,” DeSantis said during a bill-signing event in St. Petersburg. Taking effect in July, Florida’s standardized testing system will be replaced with progress monitoring tests starting with the 2022-23 school year. On the other hand, people criticized

DeSantis saying that the bill doesn’t address actual toll testing takes on students and teachers. “When the governor said he was reducing testing, teachers and parents saw a real opportunity to fix what’s wrong with how Florida assesses students. We imagined better outcomes for kids,” union President Andrew Spar said in a statement. While there are positives and negatives accompanying every bill, it begs the question of why there is a shift in the implementation of standardized testing. It also brings to light the purpose of utilizing this type of testing; is it even necessary? 

For a couple of decades now, there has been a love-hate relationship around standardized testing. Many people believe that it is what’s needed to keep students pushing towards higher academic outcomes. Others believe that it’s doing harm to students’ overall well-being and doesn’t have anything to do with how intelligent they are or how successful they will be in the “real world”.  These exams can determine what classes and schools students attend, where they go to college, and in some countries, determine what career they have to go into.

With the implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002, standardized testing became a priority. Intended to motivate better achievement and increase equity in education, it backfired, creating highly stressful learning environments focused mainly on getting high test scores and marginalizing students, especially low socioeconomic students in urban schools, often African Americans and Latinos which furthers racial inequity in education.   These test scores also became the way in which U.S. education compared its success to other countries’. One of these tests, the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) is an international assessment occurring every 3 years, for 15-year-old students’ mathematics, reading, and science literacy.  It was first administered in 2000, and now has over 80 countries participating. Over the years, American scores have remained stagnant even though the country has spent tons of money to close gaps with the rest of the world. Found by the New York Times, “About a fifth of American 15-year-olds scored so low on the PISA test that it appeared they had not mastered reading skills expected of a 10-year-old, according to Andreas Schleicher, director of education and skills at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which administers the exam.”

The commonly known SAT and ACT tests are also high stakes exams. These tests are supposed to measure a high school student’s readiness for college, and provide colleges with one common data point that can be used to compare all applicants. High school and college funding and other supports are adjusted based on standardized test scores which encourages schools to place an even higher emphasis on the “importance” of standardized testing. These exams are taken by millions of high school students each year, earning millions of dollars for the nonprofit organizations that own them. 

The obsession over these exams have led to many test scandals  where students (and their parents and athletic coaches) have cheated in various ways to obtain higher scores to ensure their acceptance into the best universities. In the US, each year, millions of dollars are poured into textbooks and tutors, all in hopes of getting a good SAT/ACT score. I was one of them. My parents were able to pay for a tutor who helped me study a certain way. I learned there were tricks to taking these tests that were supposed to help me get a better score. When I took the test, however, I was still a mess. I felt that if I did poorly, it would hurt me in some weird way. I couldn’t shake the experience. I didn’t do well on my first one. This experience was so stressful and overwhelming that it demoralized me; I didn’t want to do it again. 

When interviewing a fellow student at the Episcopal School of Dallas, we discussed the truth behind the mental exhaustion of these types of tests. “I studied for months for the SAT, my parents even paid for a private tutor,” Senior Kathryn Sullivan stated. “I was so stressed for those few months, working everyday to hopefully get a good score so my chances of getting into college were better. I was intent on impressing my parents, and even myself.” Ms Sullivan wanted a good score to feel good about herself, but at what cost?

In one Canadian study, 16 youth who had failed a literacy standardized test at least once, all experienced various levels of shame, humiliation, embarrassment, and/or degradation. They wondered and worried greatly for a long time about the power of one test having such an impact on their school choices and potentially future possibilities. They stated that they didn’t believe that their teachers cared about their feelings or relationship to learning to read and comprehend well. The students added that they believed learning to read was actually a process that took place over time, not something you could test on one time to see if you were successful.

Luckily, I had the means to get some life coaching to help my “test trauma”, so I could learn not to put any more stress on myself about the ACT, nor make my test scores have anything to do with who I was at my core (my identity). I moved forward and applied to my top five universities. I was accepted into my university of choice, and as a result, I felt like a different person – more peaceful, happy and fulfilled immediately, like I dropped 50 pounds of stress and exhaustion. However, the type of coaching support I received is not yet common in schools, so many students don’t gain these empowerment skills and feel there is no way around forcing their way through testing. 

Experiencing this type of anxiety over a test, led me to think about how it could be affecting other young people as well.  Suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death in the United States for teens, and effects students across the board. Results from the 2019 Youth Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System show that 18.8% of high school students seriously considered attempting suicide and 8.9% actually attempted suicide. With rates like these among students, it begs the question of how schools are contributing to this. The stress of high school is universal, for some students driving them to the point of depression, drop-out, addiction and suicide. Testing within the school system only adds to the anxiety and stress faced by thousands of children. In the Guardian article, (who said this in the article?) found “that 63 (43%) of the 145 suicides among those aged under 20 in 2014-15 were experiencing academic pressures of different sorts before their death. Almost one in three – 46 (32%) – had exams at the time, or were coming up soon, or were waiting for exam results.”

Sarah Brennan, the chief executive of Young Minds, states that, “We know that stress at school has a big impact on mental health, and this research suggests that it can be a significant factor when young people feel suicidal. Although the causes of suicide are multiple and complex, worries around exams can add to the pressure on those who are already struggling to cope. Administrators should rebalance the education system to ensure that students’ well-being is given as much priority as their academic performance.” 

According to David C. Berliner in an 2003 ASCD article which summarized whether high stakes testing was effective, researchers found that when rewards and sanctions were attached to performance on tests, “students became less intrinsically motivated to learn and less likely to engage in critical thinking.” In addition, they found that high-stakes tests cause teachers to “take greater control of the learning experiences of their students, denying their students opportunities to direct their own learning.”  (Additional Reference)

In working towards the “well-being of learners,” Sayed and Soudien (2003) have urged us to notice that equitable education is not simply a matter of treating everyone the same in order to achieve a fair result. Well-being is individualized, which means, everyone has their own way to learn and grow and show their skills and knowledge. School systems must take that into consideration. 

In an article called College Admissions Tests and Socioeconomic/ Racial Discrimination, by Aaron W. Hughey, it showed that students from wealthier families normally score significantly higher on standardized tests than do their counterparts from families who are lower in the economic scale. In a study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers discovered that chronic stress experienced from growing up in poverty can have a direct impact on the development of the brain and a person’s well-being. For example, No Kid Hungry, an organization committed to ending child hunger, surveyed teachers and principals, finding that three quarters of teachers see students hungry in school. These teachers described the students suffering from hunger as having problems with; poor academic performance, inability to concentrate, lack of motivation, tiredness, behavioral problems and feeling sick. 11 Without basic needs, students struggle to learn. Add testing to this equation, and you have very stressed out students who feel worse and worse about themselves because their needs are not being met, not because anything is actually wrong with them.

While standardized tests are made to be supposedly fair and unbiased, there is a clear push for conformity with everyone receiving the same questions. This would naturally create a bias, especially in regards to economic advantages and disadvantages, i.e. sex, gender, culture, race, income, etc. Humans operate differently based on their past experiences. What makes people unique or different is what makes them strong. Past experiences and strengths can’t be accounted for in the same test for everyone.  Each person has specific interests, talents, and capabilities, so it is unrealistic to base “life success and well-being” on getting a high score on a test. It would be more realistic to grow a student’s strengths and passions, and give them well-being support for their challenges. 

Although Education Week found there is “vast research literature linking test scores and later life outcomes, such as educational attainment, health, and earnings, these observed correlations, however, do not necessarily reflect causal effects of schools or teachers on later life outcomes.” 12  So it is possible that the students who do well on tests are the ones who have a hard work ethic; wake up early in the morning, go to work on time, and work hard. (Those who already have some skills and confidence.) Thus, the reason for their success is not necessarily what they learned in school. Thus, the differences in standardized test scores, like the ACT and SAT, most likely reflect differences in learning opportunities outside of school, including the stability and environment students grow up in. 

With an exaggerated emphasis on memorizing and learning how to take tests, and not actually applying information, do tests even pose any core value? The negative (or positive) identity that tests instill in students creates a fixed mindset that, if you don’t do well on tests and don’t get good grades, you won’t get into a good college, therefore you won’t be successful, and then YOU are not successful. There have been times that my peers and I have been really angry or crying over a grade of 92.  I can really see now how developing this “testing belief” took my focus away from learning for myself and onto just getting a good score. I read a research study once that showed that one month after seniors took a history AP test, they couldn’t recall 90% of the material. I can relate. 

Children are born naturally wanting to learn. If students don’t want to learn it is because learning has become something they need to achieve outside of themselves. Grades or good testing becomes the goal. Psychology 101 tells us that external rewards after a while, undermine intrinsic motivation. In addition, because the system of education tells students that they need to learn certain skills and concepts by certain ages, like learning to read by 3rd grade, they learn to believe that if they don’t reach that goal, there is “something wrong with them”.  The truth is, learning to read at any age is fine. Quit testing them all the time.  If students feel good about themselves and understand that people learn at different rates, they will learn to read. 

Today, finally, colleges are moving away from requiring the SAT and ACT for college entrance. When I applied to my colleges of choice, I found out that I didn’t have to turn in my ACT score so I didn’t. But I worried that I would be at a disadvantage. No one really explained to me what was going on. In reality, however, studies have been showing that the SAT/ACT do not show significant gains in success in college. A three-year study of colleges released in 2014 found only “trivial” differences in graduation rates and grade point averages between those students who submitted standardized test results and those who didn’t. Further supporting the point that numbers rarely tell the whole story, in 2009, Wake Forest University went test-optional, making it the first top-30 national university to make this shift. They were “very glad” they made the move, and believed that the measure of intelligence and potential requires a deeper look at the person. A person’s value is based more on life experience, work ethic, aspiration, and engagement. That’s why many schools, like Wake Forest, rely heavily on the interview process.

“In March 2020, about 1,000 of the 2,300 private nonprofit and public bachelor’s-granting colleges and universities offered students the option to apply to their institutions without submitting SAT or ACT scores, and several dozen operated as “test blind,” wherein all applicants were reviewed without testing results. According to FairTest, nearly 1,700, or two-thirds of colleges and universities, as of October 2020 are operating with some form of test-optional or test-blind policy.” This is a huge step in the dismantlement of standardized testing, a system that perpetuates stress and anxiety within students. Let’s hope they keep it this way. Now lets begin to apply this information to everyday subject tests at school and shift the whole testing system into something more meaningful and useful.

Does high stakes testing work? Do high test scores mean meaningful and useful learning has taken place? How do you think standardized testing affects mental health and internalized belief systems? Do high test scores correlate with life success and satisfaction, or even community contribution to make the world a better place?

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