RUNNING HEAD: THE PSYCHOLOGY OF STANDARDIZED TESTING 1
THE PSYCHOLOGY OF STANDARDIZED TESTING 11
The Psychology of Standardized Testing
In this paper I will explain how high stakes standardized testing can negatively impact elementary aged students psychologically and the unnecessary pressure that testing places on them. Putting young students who are still developing under large amounts of stress or pressure can cause permanent damage that will affect them for the rest of their lives. These tests have been shown to cause chronic stress in children, especially young children. This chronic stress can cause issues in brain development, specifically in the HPA Axis. Because standardized testing has been tied to federal funding since the JFK administration, testing is unlikely to go away. Testing in the United States is so high stakes because the future of schools and teachers rest on test scores. Putting that much pressure on a test results in a narrower curricular and a strict time schedule to focus on test material neglecting to teach important emotional and social skills to children. It is dangerous to put this amount of pressure on children, and the United States needs to move fast to find an alternative to the traditional form of standardized testing.
Standardized testing has been part of the American education system since the early 1900s. It has grown in importance significantly since then and now begins for students at a much earlier age. In 2002 the No Child Left Behind Act was passed asking schools to assess students in reading and math from the third through the eighth grade. While these types of assessments are not mandatory, they are linked to the federal funding a school receives. This funding effectively guarantees that standardized testing will be used in all public schools. The average student spends between 20 and 25 hours taking standardized tests each year. Between the first and twelfth grade, students are required to take around 112 standardized assessments. Not only is testing becoming more frequent, but testing is becoming more high-stakes. Students scores on standardized testing is linked to funding, educator’s jobs, and school ranking making students outcomes more high-stakes for teachers and administrators. The more weight that is put on these tests, the more the test affects students psychologically. High stakes testing causes more testing anxiety in students, which can lead to chronic stress. This type of pressure can lead to developmental brain damage. Brain development isn't the only aspect that can be stunted by high stakes testing. Testing can stunt the overall growth of a child. The more importance placed on standardized testing, the more ability it gains to harm students. This type of pressure should not be set on such young children. High stakes standardized testing causes lifelong psychological damage to a young student who is subjected to it.
I became interested in this topic during my senior year of high school when I got the opportunity to intern in a third-grade class for a full year. Third grade is the first year the students are exposed to standardized testing. I got to work one on one with some of the students who had started to fall behind. I saw how the failing scores that they continued to receive changed their view of their abilities. I watched them slowly begin to give up on themselves because these scores made them feel dumb. This observation made me ask the question, how exactly does high stakes standardized testing impact elementary aged students psychologically and is it ethical to expose young children to this amount of pressure?
CHANGES TO STANDARDIZED TESTING
On January 8, 2002 President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLBA), which was a reform of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA). The ESEA was proposed by John F. Kennedy largely in response to the Cold War and the success of the Soviet Union in the space race (Klein, 2017). These events brought our nation’s educational system into the spotlight. JFK came up with the proposal in an effort to improve the educational system and make the United States students more competitive with students across the globe. The act was made to ensure that all students would receive a quality education. The ESEA was the largest education bill ever passed. The bill passed in only 3 months and with very little debate. The ESEA provided federal funding for over 90 percent of public schools in America. However, not everyone was on board with this act. Before the ESEA was passed, education policy decisions were largely under the control of state and local governments. Critics of the ESEA suggested that the act didn’t raise student performance, and there was no way to gauge the academic success of students. No Child Left Behind was created to fix that problem. The two goals of NCLBA are raising accountability for schools and closing the achievement gap for students. “No Child Left Behind requires that [all school receiving federal aid] school year, each state must measure every child's progress in reading and math in each of grades 3 through 8 and at least once during grades 10 through 12” (2012). Schools that get funding from the ESEA must achieve Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) in test scores. AYP policy requires that the test scores of fifth graders of any given year must be higher than the test scores of the fifth graders from the previous year. If a school doesn’t reach their AYP goal two years in a row, they are labeled as a school that “needs improvement.” If a school misses their target for 4 years in a row, the school is labeled as in need of “corrective action”, which might involve replacement of staff members or an extension of the amount of time that students must spend in the classroom. If a school misses their AYP goal for six consecutive years, common options include closing the school or hiring a private company to run the school. Because of these potential consequences, the material being taught in many classrooms have been seriously narrowed to only test topics. According to Stephanie Linden (2007), a scholar with Salve Regina University who conducts research in the field of education, “we are denying our students their right to a broad and diverse educational experience. Students deserve to study a variety of subjects so that they can best be prepared for life after school” (Linden, 2007). Standardized testing has become a hindrance in the education process rather than a helpful tool. The future of a school and the jobs of teachers are all reliant upon the score of young students on standardized testing. This is the reason that the stakes for standardized testing are so high
One of the most prominent problems that comes with standardized testing is testing anxiety. The website yourdictionary.com defines it as “a fear of failing that you feel before or while taking an important examination, such as the SAT, that prevents you from performing as well as you otherwise could on the exam”(“Testing Anxiety”) Testing anxiety can cause students to not show their full potential on exams. According to a study done by Jessica and Jonas Lang (2010), there is a correlation between psychological testing anxiety and how well a student is able to show their academic potential on the exam, and by lowering testing anxiety, it is possible to raise the scores of test anxious students (Lang, J.W. & Lang J., 2010). This finding demonstrated the biased nature of standardized testing. These tests are supposed to be a fair assessment of what a child has learned in the classroom, and yet a huge factor of how well they do is not under their control. The test that determines if a child progresses through the educational system is largely affected by factors outside of the classroom. There is a lot of weight put on standardized testing, which causes testing anxiety. This anxiety then causes students to perform poorly on the exams making the cycle even more vicious. This cycle can progress till students eventually drop out (Vogelaar, Bakker, Elliott, & Resing, 2016) . This level of testing anxiety is not normal for students. High stakes testing exaggerates it. These kinds of tests put an unprecedented amount of pressure on young students. The heightened test anxiety that children face when it comes to standardized testing is not the average response to just any testing; students experience far greater "test anxiety on the high-stakes assessment than on classroom tests" (Segool, Carlson, Goforth, Embse, & Barterian, 2013). In the United States standardized testing usually starts for students around age eight. The curriculum that year entirely revolves around standardized testing. In my experience, the curriculum is based on something called TEKS, Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, which is regulated by the state of Texas. Each TEKS has to be covered in a specific term due to benchmark assessments that happens every six weeks. This strict time line causes the stakes for every test to go up because if a student fails an assessment, it means they are falling behind. The more testing anxiety a student is exposed to the more likely they are to have chronic stress, which can have even more devastating impacts.
DEVELOPMENTAL BRAIN DAMAGE LINKED TO STANDARDIZED TESTING
Chronic stress can lead to severe damage to the development of a child's brain. According to Lise Alschuler, a naturopathic doctor, “The hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis, or HPA axis, is a major neuroendocrine system that controls reactions to stress and regulates many other body processes” (2016). The primary hormonal product of the HPA axis is cortisol, which is a chemical that is responsible for many functions including sleep and memory formulation. Exposure to a stressor can cause cortisol level to climb exponentially. During a routine stressor, the cortisol levels usually correct themselves within an hour. In the case of chronic stress cortisol levels cannot adjust themselves and stay elevated. The effects of high cortisol include increased risk for depression, mental illness, lower learning and memory retention, lower life expectancy, and more depressed immune function. According to Jennifer A. Heissel (2017), chronic stress can cause serious long-term effects on the HPA axis because the brain undergoes trauma when it is exposed to repeated high levels of stress. Prolonged periods of HPA axis hyperactivity can be followed by terms of severely low function and even the halt of the production of cortisol (Heissel, Levy, & Adam, 2017). This is a ridiculous amount of stress to put on a child. Full grown adults have difficulty coping with this kind of pressure. It is unrealistic to ask this much of young students, and the pressure can cause permanent damage that they will have to deal with for the rest of their lives. The early stages of life are when brain development flourishes. The brain doesn't fully develop until a person is in their twenties. At the age of 8, brain development is at its prime. Between the ages, eight and ten children begin to develop higher level thinking and cognitive functions. This is also the age when critical and abstract thinking skills start to form. However, exposure to the chronic stress from high stakes testing can lead to problems during a child’s brain development. Problems related to brain development can also be coupled with the underdevelopment of a child as a whole.
EMOTIONAL DEVELOPMENT AND STANARDIZED TESTING
Elementary school is an essential time for the overall development of a child’s life. Elementary school is when a child learns self-expression, emotional skills, social skills, self-discipline, and interactions with others. For many children, elementary school is the first time that they get to interact with a large group of their peers who are the same age as themselves. This period of a student’s life is when they learn about empathy and how to coexist with other children. An essential part of this development is the involvement of special curricular programs such as art, music, and physical education. George Graham et al. discussed his concern in 2002 of the cutbacks of these programs due to the reallocation of time to teaching test material. He claims that these programs contribute to "the education of the whole child" (Graham, et al., 2002). I have seen these kinds of cutbacks first hand. At the elementary school where I interned, if one of the students failed one of their assessments they had to be pulled out of their specials classes. Specials classes included P.E., art, music, and computer times. If they start to fall behind, they are removed out of the times they have to be with their friends and put in tutoring. They are punished for falling behind when it’s not their fault. High stakes testing is also forcing cutbacks on social times for students. These cutbacks are concerning because there is a delicate balance in place in the public-school system between the intellectual learning and emotional development. Allowing students designated times to socialize with each other helps to form students’ emotional development and social skills (Barrier-Ferreira, 2008, p. 139). A prime example of cutbacks on social interactions is students being pulled out of a recess for an extra class time when they fall behind when learning test material. Recess is important because students get a needed break halfway through their school day that helps them to maintain focus in the second half of their day. In contrast to the classroom setting, recess gives children an opportunity to be in charge. They get the time to interact with each other. Standardized testing is robbing some children of their recess time and interaction time with their peers.
The traditional form of standardized testing is obviously a major problem that the public-school system needs to address. Elementary school students should not be exposed to this kind of stress at such a young age. The amount of pressure that this kind of high stakes testing puts on young students is unhealthy and dangerous for young children. High stakes testing can have lifelong devastating impacts on student’s brain development and their overall development as a functioning person. If the United States doesn’t do something to combat this problem soon, young students could be facing a huge problem. It is time to consider an alternative type of testing that will reduce the negative impact on children. The federal government needs to find another way to assess schools that doesn’t put all of the pressure on the students. There are many different types of testing that have been suggested in place of standardized testing. It’s time to consider changing the way we assess students in elementary schools.
Alschuler, L. (2016). The HPA Axis. Retrieved November 30, 2017, from http://www.integrativepro.com/Resources/Integrative-Blog/2016/The-HPA-Axis
Barrier-Ferreira, J. (2008). Producing commodities or educating children? nurturing the personal growth of students in the face of standardized testing. The Clearing House: A Journal of Educational Strategies, Issues and Ideas, 81(3), 138-140. doi:10.3200/tchs.81.3.138-140
Graham, G., Parker, S., Wilkins, J. L., Fraser, R., Westfall, S., & Tembo, M. (2002). The effects of high-stakes testing on elementary school art, music, and physical education. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, 73(8), 51-54. doi:10.1080/07303084.2002.10608330
Heissel, J. A., Levy, D. J., & Adam, E. K. (2017). Stress, sleep, and performance on standardized tests: understudied pathways to the achievement gap. AERA Open, 3(3), 233285841771348. doi:10.1177/2332858417713488
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Segool, N. K., Carlson, J. S., Goforth, A. N., Embse, N. V., & Barterian, J. A. (2013). Heightened test anxiety among young children: elementary school students’ anxious responses to high-stakes testing. Psychology in the Schools,50(5), 489-499. doi:10.1002/pits.21689
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Testing: frequently asked questions. (2012). Retrieved December 05, 2017, from https://www2.ed.gov/nclb/accountability/ayp/testing-faq.html
Vogelaar, B., Bakker, M., Elliott, J. G., & Resing, W. C. (2016). Dynamic testing and test anxiety amongst gifted and average-ability children. British Journal of Educational Psychology,87(1), 75-89. doi:10.1111/bjep.12136