‘Our Children Are Being Tampered With’: A Teacher Speaks Out on Emotional Effects of High-Stakes Testing

effects_of_high_stakes_testingAs a self-proclaimed radical optimist, silver linings rarely elude me. But I can see no upside to the high-stakes testing frenzy that has engulfed our schools. Everywhere I look, the joy of teaching and learning is dissipating, being replaced by the dark cloud of testing. Discovery has been hijacked by drudgery.

To start, I want to be clear about one thing: Tests have always been an important part of school, but they should be presented as opportunities for students to shine, not traps for them to fall into. Assessments can be a positive experience if the teacher and student work together to ensure learning and allow for improvement in areas where students need help. But high-stakes tests do not allow for this sort of interaction.

In over twenty years of teaching, I have collected some beautiful work from students – everything from poetry anthologies to science fiction stories; informative essays on the impact of early settlement on Native cultures of the Pacific Northwest to essay exams on the theme of Jack London’s The Call of the Wild. However, the pressure cooker of high-stakes testing prohibits any nurturing or sheltering of the learning process; for that matter, there is no learning process. The hours spent on test prep is taking time away from quality literature, cooperative learning, critical thinking, field trips, elective classes and so much more. Students, teachers, and administrators are exhausted. It takes more effort than ever to make learning fun in today’s educational climate.

As a teacher, it is difficult to watch students endure such tests. We have no opportunity to nurture the learning process, no chance to review highs and lows or provide clarification or feedback. Worse yet, when students do experience confusion or ask for assistance, we are strictly forbidden from providing any support once the test window opens. As teachers, we feel like mummies in the room.

Furthermore, I believe that high stakes tests are developmentally inappropriate and emotionally damaging for elementary and middle school children. Having watched my students spend 5 – 8 hours testing in front of computers in recent weeks, I am more convinced of this than ever.

As a teacher of twelve and thirteen year olds, I am far more interested in my students’ well-being than their national ranking, and their body language alone tells me something is wrong. They look overwhelmed and exhausted. More than ever, I see this disappointment in students. More than ever, I see kids showing signs of depression and anxiety in school.

Extreme test anxiety may affect up to 20 percent of school-aged children, while another 18 percent may experience less severe forms of it. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America  warns us that “feelings of anger, fear, helplessness and disappointment are common emotional responses to test anxiety.”

Standardized tests seem to ignore the reality that kids are at various stages in their emotional development and maturity. They are sensitive to what happens in school. Middle school students, for example, experience an epidemic of physiological and emotional changes that manifest themselves in a wide range of behaviors and thoughts. Things often don’t feel “normal” to them. More than anything else, kids want to feel accepted; they want to belong.

Every day they navigate an enormous highway of negative media, in addition to the usual stresses of growing up. Failure is not seen as an opportunity for growth, but as a label – one they wear with shame. I cannot count the number of times I’ve heard kids say, “I suck at all these tests” or “I always fail these tests.” It is heartbreaking.

And yet many lawmakers plod forward seemingly unaware of – or unconcerned with – the real impact on kids and their emotional well-being. Educators are regularly bombarded with test prep materials, but I have yet to see a single survey measuring the emotional effects of years of mandatory tests proctored under laboratory-like conditions.

Perhaps so-called education “reformers” are afraid of what such surveys might reveal. For many teachers and parents, however, the truth is clear.

Our children are being tampered with. As parents and teachers, we are the first responders standing guard on the front lines, fighting to protect students’ access to a quality education. It is up to all of us to do what we can to shield students from the damaging effects of overtesting.

Let’s commit ourselves to being radically optimistic about our students and their futures. Don’t toss creativity out for test prep. If the testing frenzy continues, we must not let it have the power it craves. We must remind our students that we care deeply about who they are, not how they score, and that a person’s ability to reach his or her dreams can never be measured in acronyms.

Chad Donohue teaches English, writing, and social studies at Park Place Middle School in Monroe, Washington. He also teaches composition and public speaking at Northwest University in Kirkland and blogs regularly for Teaching Tolerance.

  • Martin

    I think you’ve all got your heads in the clouds and don’t want to do what it takes to improve kids’ lives. You want a raise every year, but don’t want to show accountability for all kids, just some kids. Testing is being implemented because there has been little accountability for years. We don’t compete with many countries because we don’t emphasize quality education. ONce they leave our high schools (if they graduate), they need remediation to manage college. Yes, the K-12 system has failed in many instances. Sure, some suburbs and largely white areas do fine. Many urban areas and schools where students are of color there are large percentages of dropouts and students who don’t make standards. Blame the parents and poverty, right? Well, how about making you do your jobs a bit better to the EXTENT POSSIBLE. I don’t mean teachers are incompetent, but unions want to bunch together all students and teachers to the extent possible to show they’re all alike. Well, what if some teaches are effective? What’s the chance everyone is of equal quality? Zero. Let’s find the best ones and put them in charge of the most difficult students so they have the opportunity to learn like suburban kids. It’s likely thirty per cent of our teachers are GREAT, sixty percent are average and ten percent stink. Put the best ones in charge and that can be shown via testing which shows who makes the most progress with students. Teacher reps and probably Mr. Donahue hates the idea that statistics can show who the most successful teachers are today. Unfortunately, we made this mess for ourselves because we just let people pass by saying “they can’t do better” or “it’s the family structure”, or “poverty”. All correct assumptions, TO A DEGREE. And to a degree, it’s a COPOUT. I want to explore to what degree we’ve ALL copped out.

    • Day

      The problem is “one size fits all” testing. Any profession should be held accountable. But, how can you measure a student’s performance with a “one size fits all” test? This year I had twenty-three students. My special education students who were ten years old, but had the developmental level of a first grader were put in the pool of tested students at grade level. That dropped my scores. Does that make me a bad teacher? Insane!!!! I have students that are “late bloomers” and may struggle until they are more developmentally mature enough to understand the material they are asked to master. Yet students are not placed by ability or maturation levels. They are place by age and then squeezed into a “one size fits all” testing pool. Do they know how much damage this does to children who are not at the same maturation level as their school age peers? School is not a business and children are products made of the same material. Business needs to get its nose out of education. The business model does not work in a classroom where the children come with multiple learning challenges.

    • Day

      Bravo!!! Well said. I have experienced the same and tried to explain it, but it falls on deaf ears because teachers have become a convenient scapegoat. Business leaders, such as Bill Gates, need to be held accountable for their part in the disenfranchising of teachers. By the way this is step one in any takeover. Their motives are not concern for children, but how they can siphon away educational dollars into their ever bulging pockets. They have purposefully created an atmosphere of hostility towards teachers so they can replace them with hardware and software. This fulfills their agenda of using educational dollars as their new “cash cow.” Wake up people and stop this before you find your children sitting in from of a mass of terminals guided by talking avatars all day long. Watch the ads for online learning for k-12. Really think about their message and the motives behind their message. It is an advertisers job to persuade. They don’t care about your children. Not really.

    • Day


  • Danny Goodman

    There must be another solution. They are still not prepared for college, I know. I have to teach what a complete sentence is in my college courses and I’m not a writing teacher. By semester’s end, many drop out and I teach an introductory course — even dumbing it down so no student “is left behind.” I’m lucky if I get to introduce one complex idea a month. Our system is truly broken.

  • Steve Curry

    I listen and read all this discussion demeaning our (United States) education system and have but two questions. 1. If our education system is in such a dire need of reform, why, I ask you, are so many foreign students coming to the United States to be educated at all levels of schooling? I submit it’s because we provide the best education format for producing well rounded, creative learners who have always been first in their ability to find innovative solutions to current problems. We are so busy trying to “keep up with the Jones” around the world that we have forgotten why so many want to become part of our society. and 2. When we talk about “accountability” are we suggesting that the teachers of the past, the very ones who taught, today’s and yesterday’s generation were not accountable. “Accountability” is the current buzz word for let’s blame someone else for all our ills. Teachers of today are no different from teachers of other eras. Some good, some bad, most average – they all had and have today one thing in common, they are going to teach “their” children what they need to know. Those who don’t will be weeded out just like they were in the past. More “accountability” is not the answer. Let’s move on from this discussion and let teachers do what they do best, love, nurture and teach our children.

    • Day

      Good job! I like the way you cut through the “blue smoke and mirrors” arguments.

  • Day

    Stop comparing! I am tired of the debate on who is right or wrong. Teaching is one of the most misunderstood professions in this country. I have zero musical talent, but if I practiced the piano all day long I could learn to play. However, that would not make me a talented player. Teaching is a talent and those that truly gravitate to it and want to polish their talent are being ham strung by prescriptive methodologies that are driving the most talented out of the profession. I have over 20 years experience in the classroom, and I am good at it. However, I have administrators walking into my classroom “scoring” me on trivial things such as whether or not I have the “I can statements” properly posted, did I walk around the room enough or too much, grading me on stop watch transitions, or did I give enough time to discussion when our calendars have been pared down to the bare minimum. I hold myself accountable every time I walk into that classroom because I am acutely aware of the awesome responsibility I have. Are parents fully aware of their awesome responsibility? Are lawmakers aware of their responsibilities to serve the people who elected them instead of the profiteers that lobby them for advantages? Are school administrators aware of their responsibility to weed out the non-talented teachers and nurture the talented ones? I was told by an administrator that I was too smart, worked too hard, and was too well read. He went on to tell me to “tone” it down because I was a threat to the other teachers. Instead of nurturing them to do better, his attitude was to put a lid on me so that the other teachers would stop feeling threatened to my work style. He said that I was trying to show them up, and I needed to back off. Never did it enter his mind that my focus was not on the other teachers and their feelings, but on the success of my students. Thank God I have only three years to retirement. I worry about the children who have the most to lose in this contrived and useless debate.

    • unbelievable007

      I am not comparing. I’m just stating a fact about what is going on in another country. Sorry you are so disturbed and anxious to retire. Why wait for three years? It’s bad for your health, and you could make room for some new talent.

    • Christa Woods

      it’s amazing how many people will continue to miss the point no matter how hard they are smacked in the face with it (i.e. unbelievable007); they won’t get it. thank you Day for your professionalism in the field and dedication to students in the classroom. it’s unbelievable to me some of the things i hear about admin and what they do in the name of ‘education’. it’s sad really, and the kids are the ones who will pay the ultimate price.

  • Day

    Yes, I am a teacher and I I get stomachaches during testing time because the results are used to punish instead of evaluate and improve instruction. The concept of maturation has been removed from the educational equation. The writers of the Common Core left that out. It makes me sick trying to find ways to present material that is developmentally over my students’ heads. When I do present the Common Core material, it’s “deer in the headlights.” They simple are developmentally not there, and it doesn’t matter how good I am the students will not respond until that maturation kicks in. Find a copy of the common core vocabulary that first graders are suppose to master. These are children who are learning to read three letter words, yet they have to master two and three syllable words so they can perform well on the standardized tests attached to the Common Core. We are pushing students too fast, too far, and too high. I lived in Trinidad Tobago with my family for three years. My son who showed talent in gymnastics trained after school with their national team. They challenged my son in his abilities within his maturation level. When we moved back the United States he continued his training. However, his coach pushed him too far and too fast beyond his physical developmental level and my son was injured. Requirements of the Common Core are doing the same thing as his coach. The net result is that we are teaching to immediate memory. It feels like I’m living in the movie “Groundhog Day” every Monday morning. Nothing is retained from the week before because we have to push too far too fast. When I have talked to policy makers about this, I get a blank stare. Our policy makers are not informed of the realities, and don’t care to be. They care about their jobs, their power, and their own well being. We no longer have elected people who care about the people they serve. Could that be why the voters keep voting the same “low performing” legislatures back into office year after year?

  • Day

    Really!!! Take your anger and give it to Bill Gates the “inventor” of Common Core. Then ask him how much money he is making on his “investment” in education and from the tax payers educational dollars. Yes, education is now considered the new “cash cow” for big business. I don’t know how many educational dollars have been wasted on over priced tests. Then there is the reality that the tests attached to Common Core are expensive and do not test at the appropriate developmental levels.

    Our district with the encouragement of the State Department of Education purchased clickers for classrooms. Useless. They break down and cannot adjust for the children who choose “d” on the clicker when there are only a, b, and c choices. This then diverts attention away from the lesson and onto the software. I call them time thieves. Thousands of dollars are being wasted on gadgetry. I suggest you become a teacher, and then I would like to know where you place your anger after the first year.

  • Day

    I call them pinheads. Same thing.

  • Day

    State legislatures were not sold a bill of goods. That assumes an innocence on the part of the legislatures. They were out right purchased by big business contributions to their campaigns. In our state we defeated laws that would cripple education giving it over to business whims. We had a referendum and reversed the laws. Those legislatures came back angry and full of vengeance for embarrassing them in front of their big business backers. They are hostile and will be until we elect them out of office.

  • Day

    True, there is a misconception as to where Common Core originated. However, “Race to the Top” federal dollars attached to the Common Core helped in the assurance of its implementation for those states that bought into it. No, Common Core was not required, but many states adopted it because it was an easy fit to qualify for federal dollars.

  • Christa Woods

    I agree with you 100% Chad. Too bad teachers’ input and our actual experiences with students who are subjected to these ridiculous test schedules aren’t taken into account. But why would they want actual expert feedback? It’s frustrating!