Standardized testing has been one of the root causes of anxiety throughout my educational career. It started in elementary school, where I needed to excel on the CATs in order to feel like I was reasonably smart. Then it was on to middle school, where higher scores equaled higher-level classes and thus more opportunities in high school. Now I am in high school, and when I think about standardized testing, my head hurts and my stomach is filled not with butterflies but stampeding elephants, trumpeting that I need a 36 on my ACT to be good enough, that I must score well on the PSAT to get a scholarship, that I am not an adequate human if my AP scores aren’t fives across the board. And yet, I strongly believe that standardized testing ineffectively contributes to improving instruction and performance. I have personally experienced the trauma of standardized testing: the crippling anxiety coupled with the deep-rooted fear that I will never measure up. Honestly, I would love to believe that I am more than a number, but the extremely competitive time we live in – which thrives on test scores – tells me that no, I am a number, and that number better be pretty darn high if I plan on getting into college and landing a decent job. Hours upon hours of my life have been spent studying for the ACT, PSAT, SAT, AP tests, and so on. From this experience, I have gained a few valuable insights into the problems caused by high-stakes standardized testing. Most importantly, this practice puts huge pressure on students to perform, and this results in stress and anxiety. According to psychologist Nicky Hayes, testing can result in “disturbed sleep patterns, tiredness, worry, irregular eating habits, increased infections, inability to concentrate, decreased memory capacity, and even fear.” The National Center for Fair and Open Testing has added that test-related anxiety results in emotional damage, a loss of interest in school, lowered self-esteem, increased dropout rates, and even lower test scores for as many as 12 percent of students. Clearly, student performance is negatively affected by standardized testing. Coming from a family of teachers and lovers of all things educational, it hurts me to say that standardized testing undermines creativity and narrows the scope of learning for students. However, this is unavoidably true, because the higher the stakes of the test, the more teachers “teach to the test,” since schools are often held accountable for scores and punished if students are not performing at a high enough level. The strange and unfortunate resulting paradigm is that schools focus even more on low-level test-taking skills rather than actual mastery of the material, and as a result, students fall even further behind intellectually. After all, one cannot test the skills that truly matter: researching, analyzing the curiosities of nature, constructing meaning from experience, being financially independent, musical and artistic ability, and curiosity. Thus, these creative skills are not focused on and often not even offered in schools. A 2006 study by the Center on Education Policy found that since 2002, 71 percent of school districts have cut back on subjects like history and music to spend more time on the tested subjects. Author and professor Todd Gitlin states that one cannot help but notice “how students of all stripes arrive at college with shallow and scattered educations. … A strong liberal arts curriculum could teach them about their history, their social condition, themselves.” However, students learn to put their worth in test scores rather than focus on the love of knowledge, the beauty of fine arts, and the pursuit of individuality. In addition, teaching to the test causes a negative classroom climate and narrowed “cookie-cutter” curriculum that turns many students off. As Emerson so eloquently stated, “Education lies in respecting the pupil. It is not for you to choose what he shall know, what he shall do.” It is essential that one of the biggest flaws of standardized testing not be overlooked: it hurts at-risk students the most. Schools often feel so pressured to have high test scores that low-performing students are encouraged to drop out. A 2010 report from the civil rights organization Advancement Project found that “the practice of pushing struggling students out of schools to boost test scores has become quite common.” Many students in high-poverty areas attend underfunded schools that cannot provide the teachers, materials, libraries, laboratories, and technology necessary for adequate learning. At risk students who have learning disabilities, attention disorders, and those who do not speak English as a first language all struggle to perform well on standardized tests, further widening the gap between a future of opportunity and one of mediocrity. In addition, a disproportionate number of minority students fail to pass graduation exams, are held back due to test scores, and perform at an overall lower level than their peers. The No Child Left Behind Act passed by President Bush in 2002 ushered in an era that sought to use standardized testing to even the playing field for minorities and socially disadvantaged students, yet all it has done is punish them for things they cannot control, and the educational disparities continue to increase. The best thing we can do to even the playing field is reduce the number of high-stakes tests, or abolish standardized testing altogether. Standardized testing is genuinely hurting schools, teachers, and most importantly, students. The test anxiety that students experience affects their performance and emotional health, teaching to the test is causing narrowed and distorted curriculum that discourages individuality, and certain demographics are being unfairly hurt by a system designed to protect them. It is my hope, as I pause to write this piece between ACT study sessions, that Americans will begin to realize the dangers of high-stakes testing and push for reform that will encourage students to pursue knowledge simply because it is beautiful and powerful.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.