‘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.