Intensive standardized testing not only causes stress in students, but may undermine learning.
Anecdotal reports from educators, combined with a surge in prescriptions for such medications as Ritalin and Prozac, suggest that students are experiencing increased stress in the classroom. At the root of the problem, some researchers suggest, are schools that primarily rank students based on their test scores.
Common responses to “exam stress,” as Hayes characterizes it, include disturbed sleep patterns, tiredness, worry, irregular eating habits, increased infections, and inability to concentrate.”
Our educational system is now relying more than ever on standardized tests that compare students to one another as the dominant assessment instrument. This tendency has forced teachers at all grade levels to “orient students to performance goals and comparative standards of excellence instead of internal mastery goals,” says Scott Paris, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan. The emphasis on external goals, Paris suggests, has created an unhealthy classroom scenario in which “standardized tests provoke considerable anxiety among students that seems to increase with their age and experience.”
How Does the Brain React to Stress in the Classroom?
Stress is the body’s general response to any intense physical, emotional or mental demand placed on it. A student’s reaction, for example, to a teacher’s reminder that a final exam will be presented next week, may induce stress that triggers the sympathetic division of the autonomic nervous and endocrine systems, according to Nicky Hayes, editor of Foundations of Psychology. Common responses to “exam stress,” as Hayes characterizes it, include disturbed sleep patterns, tiredness, worry, irregular eating habits, increased infections, and inability to concentrate.
In addition, researchers studying cognitive impairment report decreased memory capacity in stressed individuals. Studies employing Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) technology also indicate that chronically stressful conditions correspond with selective atrophy in the human brain.
Where is stress processed in a person’s brain? Researchers have demonstrated at least three separate brain regions that play integral roles in the way someone processes stress in the form of fear. The prefrontal cortex, which specializes as a cognitive and emotional area, is thought to participate in the interpretation of sensory stimuli. Thus, it may be the site where the potential for danger is first assessed.
A second area involved in processing fear is the amygdala, which resides in a “primitive” area of the brain called the limbic system (that includes the hippocampus). Both the wider and more generalized limbic system and the smaller, more specialized amygdala are areas where anxiety is initiated and routed.
The third area, located at the base of the brain, is the hypothalamus. This area, in response to signals sent from the prefrontal cortex and amygdala, coordinates the release of hormones that drive a person’s motor responses to perceived threats.
In particular, the stress signals originating from the limbic system and other cortical regions cause the hypothalamus to secrete a corticotropin-releasing hormone. This liquid protein prompts the pituitary gland to emit adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). In turn, ACTH causes the adrenal gland to release corisol and, in so doing, prepares the body to defend itself.
High-Stakes Testing Takes a Toll
Skeptics question the notion that stress hurts students and their performance in the classroom. They claim that anxiety-provoking situations are a part of daily life that students, like all people, must learn to handle.
Nonetheless, some educational researchers have documented “acting out” behaviors exhibited by stressed out students that even go beyond the “exam stress” symptoms described earlier. “Stressed elementary students in grades two through four tend to show emotional stress behaviors such as crying, throwing tantrums, wetting themselves, and vomiting,” says Tim Urdan, an assistant professor of psychology at Santa Clara University. “The older kids, such as those in high school, are more likely to show ‘rebellious’ responses: refusal to participate, cutting class, and deliberately undermining the test by answering incorrectly on purpose.”
In Massachusetts, 220,000 high school students were scheduled in April 2000 to take the state’s required academic achievement test. Most dutifully took it, but 200 others instead staged protests, chanting “Be a hero! Take a zero!”
Intentionally answering questions incorrectly is of particular concern to educators because it indicates a decrease in student motivation. In this regard, Paris notes that students “learn to study information that will be tested and ignore or devalue other information.” After all, he adds, assessment in the form of tests is woven into the fabric of schooling from readiness tests for kindergarten students to competency examinations that high school students must pass in order to graduate.
The byproduct of years of testing has caused students to believe that good grades are more important than understanding—that high scores rather than the cultivation of the mind is the purpose of schooling.
Furthermore, students are well aware of the fact that test scores have become the basis for comparative social judgements. According to a recent study done by Paris, for instance, older students are increasingly more likely to agree with the following statement: “I’m afraid that people will think I’m stupid if I get a low score on a test.” These students may worry about their low test scores becoming common knowledge, possibly lowering their esteem in the eyes of others.
Paris believes that the widespread use of tests comparing one group of students to another has made students feel increasingly more anxious and competitive. Lack of preparation is cited as another common reason for test anxiety, based on the failure of parents and children to spend adequate time together discussing class material. Parents may also not know how long they can expect their children to concentrate at one time—unaware, for example, that research indicates first and second graders can study no more than 15 minutes without needing a short break and third through six graders require a break after 20 to 30 minutes of studying.
In some places, students are beginning to express bitterness about having to take such high-stakes tests. In Massachusetts, 220,000 high school students were scheduled in April 2000 to take the state’s required academic achievement test. Most dutifully took it, but 200 others instead staged protests, chanting “Be a hero! Take a zero!”
Lessening the Importance of Standardized Tests
Does an exaggerated emphasis on ranking students based on standardized test scores cause stress while discouraging the kind of open inquiry that fosters true intellectual growth?
Paris, along with Richard J. Stiggins, president of the Assessment Training Institute in Portland, Oregon, believes that more educators are now realizing how standardized tests provoke considerable anxiety—anxiety that increases with each year that students move through school. Furthermore, students do not necessarily become “test wise” as is commonly believed. Instead, older students report not checking their answers, filling in bubbles mindlessly, carelessly skimming passages for answers, and occasionally cheating. This “test pollution” encourages destructive habits that undermine genuine learning.
Paris and other researchers believe that potentially devastating consequences are in store for students who repeatedly receive low scores on standardized tests. They are left with few choices but to demean their own abilities, devalue the tests, or leave school altogether. But even the winners pay a price, as they come to value competitive success more than genuine learning.
Paris, echoing the thoughts of other educators and administrators, concludes: “The proliferation of high-stakes testing in our education system under the guise of accountability may raise test scores of students for the wrong reasons. Publishers and state departments may make newer and better achievement tests, students may exhibit higher test scores, and parents may be more satisfied with their local schools, but the price that is paid in the narrowing of the curriculum, the restricted definition of educational success, and the inculcation of test-wiseness and test-taking strategies may mortgage the future of children’s appreciation of school and their life-long learning habits.”
Binkley, Darla. (January, 2000). Helping Children Succeed in School. Extension News, University of Illinois. 12, 1-2.
Crittenden, Jules. (2000). Boycotters score points as most students take MCAS. Boston Herald, April 13, 2000
Hayes, Nicky. (1994) Foundations of Psychology. London: Routlege
Kalin, N. H. (May, 1993) The Neurobiology of Fear. Scientific American. 195-205.
Leslie S. (1990), Helping Gifted Students With Stress Management. Kid Source Online.
Kohl, H. (1992). I won’t learn from you! Thoughts on the role of assent in learning. Rethinking Schools 7(1): 16-17, 19.
Meltz, B. F. (1999). How to handle MCAS scores. Boston Sunday Globe City Weekly, 11 November: 01.
Nicholls, J.G. The competitive ethos and democratic education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 1989
Oliveira, R. (1999). No time to share: Students say MCAS leaves no room to talk with teachers. New Bedford Standard-Times, 6 June: 01.
Palmer, Terence J. (July, 1999) Exam Stress and the Mature Student. Stress News. 11(3), no page provided.
Paris, S., G., Lawton, T.A., Turner, J.C., & Roth, J. L. (1991). A developmental perspective on standardized achievement testing. Educational Researcher. 20, 12-20.
Stiggins, Richard J. (1999). Assessment, Student Confidence, and School Success. Phi Delta Kappan.81, 191-200.
Urdan, T. C. & Paris, S. G. (1994). Teachers’ Perceptions of Standardized Achievement Tests. Educational Policy, 8, 137-156.