Our concern about the stress of state testing is long-standing. It has become particularly controversial as states decide whether students will take their annual standardized exams this year during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Stress is a loaded word these days. Harmful stress should be avoided whenever possible. Parents, teachers and bosses (especially mine) should not make impossible demands. People doing difficult jobs should learn, or be taught, how to break down their assignments into manageable chunks, take breaks and seek help when they need it.
But the stress Gomez discussed in her excellent story is what in normal times many people, including me, would call a useful exercise. There are few if any harmful consequences for most students if they do poorly on state tests. Their scores will not affect their grades. College admission officers never see how they did.
Some states still have rules that tie elementary school promotion to test scores. But the number of states that use state exams to determine high school graduation dropped in 2019 to just 11, down about 60 percent from previous years. All states canceled their tests last year because of the pandemic. Even if those tests return this year, they are unlikely to have much effect on graduation or anything else because so many students will not take them.
“Results will be meaningless,” said Bob Schaeffer, interim executive director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, also known as FairTest. “Huge numbers of families are planning to opt their kids out of any such exams. Over the past week, visits to FairTest’s opt-out guide more than quintupled compared to the same period last year.”
Please notice the criticism is focused on standardized state tests. Hardly anyone ever expresses opposition to classroom tests given by teachers, even though those exams — unlike state tests — affect grades, college prospects and, most importantly, how students feel about themselves.
Can you imagine teachers or parents ever organizing to eliminate traditional English, math, history and science tests because they are too hard on students’ self-esteem? Also, few people advocate getting rid of homework, even though that’s what parents and children I know find most stressful about school.
I have learned as a student, a parent and an education writer that we often unconsciously convince our children that such stress is good. Students get a powerful, unspoken vibe at home. Parents often like challenging jobs, which can mean good money. Children in turn apply to challenging colleges. I think that is one reason most high school students do not have to be pushed into taking college-level Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) courses.
Many people think jobs without stress are boring. Stress-free vacations and weekends are good. I like sitting on the porch and reading a book. But hard work has its virtues. That is true even for the hundreds of people I have interviewed who have chosen the very demanding occupation of teaching.
AP and IB have become among the most beneficial programs in U.S. education. One of the secrets of their success is the stress generated by three- to five-hour final exams full of questions requiring critical thinking. The teachers of AP and IB classes have no control over those tests, adding to the tension. The exams are written and graded by outside experts. Students who don’t have one of those tests looming apparently don’t learn as much in the course. Research shows that students who take AP courses without the final exam, about 15 to 25 percent, do no better in college in that subject than those who skip the AP course entirely.
I think state tests have merit. Some students like being examined on what they know, just as student actors like performing in plays and student athletes like playing in games. I have heard teenagers speak of good grades and scores as rewards for their hard work.
Organizations like FairTest may be right that there are better ways than state tests to measure progress. I also agree that there are more productive ways of assessing college readiness than SAT and ACT tests. AP, IB and Cambridge tests are good examples.
Eventually we embrace stressful challenges in school and in any other endeavor we care about. Those experiences help tell us how good we are, and what we need to do to get better. That is important to know even during a pandemic.