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Does Standardized Testing Harm Kids' Mental Health?

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It's Unclear.

Multiple claims have been made that psychological stresses caused by standardized tests lead to depression and anxiety. While none of the impacts rise to the level of brain damage (or even close) there is evidence of adverse mental effects of an overfocus on testing.

History and Origin

There are a number claims around the impact of testing on student mental health.

The American Test Anxiety Association claims that "heightened test anxiety may affect 20 percent of school-aged children and 18 percent may experience milder forms of it" This claim is cited by PsychCentral as evidence of the adverse effects of testing on students. However, it should be noted that this claim does not deal with general anxiety, but test-specific anxiety, and the claim is unsourced, and not backed by any research.

Another article states that a survey of school psychologists showed 6 in 10 had noted increased anxiety in grade school students around high stakes testing. However, that survey had a very low response rate that precludes drawing any conclusions.

Issues and Analysis

Early tests in America were oral, and hence highly subjective. Concerns about the subjectivity of the tests and the lack of accountability of the schools led to the first comprehensive written exams under Horace Mann. These tests attempted to assess the students knowledge through short questions and free responses. Because the questions and testing experience could be made the same for all students and compared across classes they can be considered "standardized".

Since then, tests have multiplied. According to the Council of Great City Schools as of 2016, the average student in America takes 112 mandatory standardized tests before graduating high school, which leaves on average eight tests per year.

There are three major known issues that occur due to standardized testing. The first of these is stereotype threat. Stereotype threat can be defined as a situation in which individuals believe they are at risk for confirming negative beliefs about their social group. Individuals who feel under stereotype threat find their emotions heightened, which shows a decrease in the area of their brain that connects with working memory and attention.

Second would be choking under pressure and test anxiety. Researchers have figured out three reasons why students may choke up pressure. Reason one would be distraction which is the pressure of doing well distracts students from the actual testing. Another reason would be over monitoring account meaning when testing is worsened due to requiring every step.

The last reason would be over arousal account leaving the student often stressed due to a fear of a large losses, for example getting a bad testing grade.

Test anxiety is another major issue. Test anxiety refers to an unpleasant emotional and physiological reaction that can include feelings of worry, fear of failure or dread before or during a test. Math problem solving and category learning are two major test areas that students get anxious over. This affects an estimated 25 percent of 4-year college students and 80 percent of community college students in America.

Further Reading

Though standardized testing does in fact affect students, it also affects the teachers too. With so much standardized testing going on in schools, teachers don't feel like they are actually teaching, and are just going by the book. With that, it is causing them to leave the profession. This article suggests, "According to the NEA survey, a majority of teachers reported feeling considerable pressure to improve test scores. 72 percent replied that they felt "moderate" or "extreme" pressure from both school and district administrators". (Tim Walker). That shows that all the standardized testing even affects the teachers and their brains because of all the pressure for the students to do well.


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