In the current controversy surrounding high-stakes testing of our children, there are those who call such testing “child abuse,” and those who state that tests could never be tantamount to abuse. The truth lies somewhere in between. Studies do seem to point to the conclusion that a high-stakes testing environment is harmful to children, and may even have lifelong consequences.
Over the past three years, there have been many reports of test anxiety in students during Common Core tests. As early as November 2013, a group of eight principals in New York State wrote to parents to express their concern that, among other things, students were crying during tests, vomiting, losing control of their bladder or bowels, and at least one child was banging his head on the desk. Before Common Core testing, incidents like these were not commonplace in classrooms. In 2014 and now again in 2015, teachers and principals report students crying before, during, and after tests, while parents are sharing stories online of nightmares and other signs of anxiety in their children. Children are expressing feelings of negative self-image and inadequacy, and there are also reports of self-harming after the receipt of scores. Before Common Core, New York administered language arts, social studies, science, and math tests for years, without such widespread signs of anxiety. What happened? And is it important to understand the implications of test anxiety in children?
Most who hear of test anxiety, are not overly concerned. There is a general mindset that such anxiety happens to only a small substrate of the population, and that it only has effects on children during the hours of testing, a small percentage of their life. In fact, the American Test Anxieties Association estimates that high test anxiety affects about 16-20% of students, with another 18% of students experiencing moderate test anxiety. That equals about one-third of our students, or about ten million children. The problem is also on the increase since the advent of high-stakes testing, and could have lifelong consequences. The AMTAA states that such anxiety can "restrict career choices and lower quality of life."
Dr. Natasha Segool, a psychology professor at the University of Hartford, was one of the researchers who conducted a study of children in grades 3-5 in Michigan schools in 2013. The study showed that children were "significantly more anxious when taking statewide assessments compared to other classroom tests." 59% of the test subjects reported moderate text anxiety about high-stakes NCLB testing. 11% of the children surveyed reported severe psychological and physiological symptoms tied to the assessments.
In Segool's study, teachers also reported their own anxiety about student performance on NCLB tests, and researchers feel that such anxiety may have the potential to indirectly influence student perceptions. The higher the perception of rewards or sanctions by students, the more heightened the anxiety. Researchers Denscombe (2000) and Putwain (2013) state that fear appeals by teachers, or repeated messages about the importance of test scores, can exacerbate the development of stress and anxiety in children. Even when teachers do not overtly stress the importance of the test, when the fate of their career is tied to student performance, they will unknowingly pass their own anxiety on to the children. In such an atmosphere, scores on high-stakes tests have the potential to make children internalize messages about their own ability to learn and succeed.
Using "motivation" techniques such as Success Academy's "red-lining" and shaming of students by rewards or punishments, creates a situation where anxiety and stress is heightened. This is especially troublesome for the population that Success Academy serves, because a 1993 study by Turner, Beidel, Hughes and Turner found that the prevalence of high test anxiety among African American elementary school children could be as high as 41%. The advent of high-stakes testing would certainly exacerbate such anxiety, and leave students extremely vulnerable to negative consequences of the boot-camp type school environment. Consequences of this institutionalized bullying include in the short term, increased lethargy, sadness, jealousy, anger, resentment, and failure-acceptance. In the long term, students would develop a lack of empathy for others and disengage from their own learning, thereby preventing the development of higher level thinking skills.
Studies have proven that chronic stress and anxiety changes brain chemistry. The effects of chronic stress are most harmful to children on the autism spectrum, or those with neurological, sensory, or developmental delays. Child Psychologist Dr. Gary Thompson believes that ADHD, English Language Learners, and gifted students are also highly vulnerable to negative effects of testing. He likens what is occurring in the US today to a huge, untested, "social experiment," which lacks parental "consent that would inform of possible damage that could result from the experiment."
Negative outcomes from test anxiety include decreased school-related motivation and low academic self-concept. Studies have also shown a significant correlation between test anxiety and generalized anxiety or mood disorders (Owens et al, 2012). Damage associated with prolonged stress includes desensitization, loss of imagination, loss of humor, loss of spontaneity, self-injury, and inability to concentrate. The results of prolonged and chronic stress do not manifest completely until teen or early adulthood, when an increase in mood disorders and personality disorders such as narcissism and antisocial behavior appear.
What are we doing to a generation of students who are enduring chronic stress and anxiety for much of the school year? The damage inflicted by test-obsessed, data-driven education "reforms" may result in a greater incidence of psychological problems that will affect the well-being and economy of our society. Parents are taking a stand and saying that they will no longer allow their children to be put in jeopardy for the sake of political gains. It is time that our governments listen, and be held accountable to end the high-stakes testing that is endangering the future of our children.