Monday, November 09, 2009

Testing and Stress

Guest-post today from Jim B.

Steve’s post from two weeks ago, “Campus Mental Health and False Urgency”, brought to light some interesting correlations between course work and an increase amount of mental illness on college campuses.

“That while students may or may not be coming to campus with higher rates of psychological concerns, we are creating them at a higher rate on our campuses”.
I do not believe this is a problem isolated to college campuses; having taught for ten years at the secondary level, I too have seen the amount of physical and mental illness associated with stress increase each year. The other day I took an informal poll of my classes, asking how many students have experienced some form of anxiety or stress prior to taking an exam. Nearly all students raised their hands. This did not come as much of a surprise, who has not felt the stress associated with a test? However, when I asked how many students have experienced more severe cases of physical or emotional symptoms related to school, resulting in their need to stay home or seek medical attention, over half of the students raised their hands. This I found to be an extremely large number of cases, after all, I teach twelve to thirteen year-olds.

A look at the special education data demonstrates an increase in the number of students with cases of emotional disorders, attention deficit syndromes, operational defiant, anxiety or emotional disturbed. Now, it would not be fair to blame testing on all emotional and physical ailments, however, I am sure that there may be a little more than just a coincidental correlation. Some students relate this feeling of stress to the increase amount of testing pressure, compliments of the No Child Left Behind emphasis on nationwide assessments. The “pass or else” syndrome has taken over many of the schools. Teachers, guidance counselors, administrators, parents, put the fear of failure into the heads of their students or children. “Do you want to work at McDonald's your whole life Johnny!” “If you fail this exam, then you will be taking extra course work next year, therefore, you will not be able to take an elective course, and you may even have your lunch period reduced”. “If you do not receive a level three on this assessment, your transcripts will show that you did not pass, what college wants a failure?” These statements, told to students prior to the administration of a mid-term, final exam, or statewide assessment, can contribute to the amount of pressure testing brings. Now, in New York State, assessments are given as early as the fifth grade. That means, by the time students graduate (if they have passed all their assessments) high school, they have been exposed to eight years of assessment pressure, not including midterms and final exams.

Each year, high-stake testing becomes the focal point of primary and secondary institutions. Conferences, superintendent days, faculty meetings, and in-service programs continue to feed the machine of testing pressure. Since it seems highly unlikely the No Child Left Behind Act, or testing mandates for that matter, will experience dramatic revisions or adjustments, students need to develop coping skills to help reduce the amount of stress and pressure aroused by high-stake assessment performance. By the time students reach college; changing their thinking patterns and attitudes becomes difficult. Coping strategies should be taught at the primary and secondary levels. Much like curriculum grows with age so should the development of proper study skills and coping mechanisms. The question is, however, how do teachers find the time, or are they willing to find the time, to add the responsibility of teaching such skills on top of their day-to-day duties of classroom instruction? What are the data patterns for educators and physical and mental ailments? Are educators becoming overwhelmed, like students, with all the pressure associated with our current educational institutions?