Many lawmakers, school administrators and educators have argued in favor of standardized testing and list the benefits of standardized testing as increased accountability, as well as measures of effective teaching and student learning. Furthermore, supporters of standardized testing purport that standardized testing promotes uniformity in the delivery of instructional content and practices. However, the limitations of standardized testing have been well documented. There is enormous pressure on students to “pass” these tests or otherwise face grade retention. In addition, these tests measure performance on a single day, without accounting for external factors that may be affecting the child during testing (e.g. lack of sleep, cold/illness, test anxiety).

As a result, the almost year-long anticipation of performing adequately on these measures often leads to emotional distress that permeates the rest of their academic performance. Difficulties with sleep, decreased appetite, impaired attention and concentration, and recurrent worries as a result of the enormous pressure they experience to produce a certain test score are often prevalent. Additionally, anxiety can also manifest as perfectionism and school refusal behavior. Children will at times become preoccupied with completing tasks perfectly, out of fear that they will be evaluated negatively. As a result, they may have difficulty completing tasks efficiently, which often leads to poor grades that may not accurately reflect the child’s mastery of the material. School refusal behaviors that often present as somatic complaints such as headaches and stomach aches are common. These behaviors may manifest prior to heading to school or when presented with challenging tasks in the classroom. Notably, other children display more disruptive school refusal behaviors such as excessive crying or tantrums which may overwhelm parents and lead to numerous school absences as a result.

Children with disabilities that are not exempt from standardized testing tend to experience more severe levels of anxiety, even if afforded educational accommodations. This group of students are at a disadvantage when expected to perform at the same level of other peers that may not have innate disadvantages. Students with disabilities are often aware of their limitations and have most likely experienced past academic failures; standard tests contribute to elevated levels of anxiety and decreased self-esteem in this group of students.  Students whom experience chronic anxiety as well as feelings of inadequacy can develop depressive symptoms including irritability, hopelessness, and low self-esteem.

Do the Benefits of Standardized Testing Outweigh the Costs?

Therefore, what can be done to prevent negative effects including anxiety, low self-esteem, and depression that are the result of standardized testing? Are the benefits of standardized testing outweighing the costs?  Given the mounting evidence against standardized testing, lawmakers and school administrators have created an epidemic of anxious children and adolescents that dread test taking and participation in other formal measures that assess student learning. It is critical that parents recognize the red flags of school-related performance anxiety and provide their children with reassurance that effort rather than outcome will be emphasized in the home.

Furthermore, praising successful displays of desired behaviors such as homework completion and time spent reviewing material outside of the classroom is important. Teachers can help build confidence and decrease anxiety in their students by not singling out or identifying low performing students in front of their classmates. Also, less emphasis should be placed on grade retention by school administrators in order to renew student enthusiasm in the learning process and decrease anxiety, by eliminating the threat of being “punished” for poor performance.

There are many students that display consistent mastery of the material though their performance in the classroom but are simply poor test takers, either due to test anxiety or the threat of being retained if they do perform adequately. Lawmakers and district administrators can also assist in eliminating the problem by no longer reinforcing schools with high performing students with monetary bonuses based on student performance. This leads school administrators to place increased pressure on teachers, which ultimately places greater stress on students which may manifest in several ways such as increased homework and the creation of distinctly identifiable groups of high and low performing students. Ultimately, it becomes a vicious cycle of anxiety created by standardized testing, that makes it difficult for students that may struggle academically in certain areas to escape. As parents, educators, and professionals we need to advocate for more effective and valid measures of student learning. Doing so will lead to a less anxious, hopeless, and frazzled generation of students that long to escape the demands of formal education and lead to improved outcomes for these students and our society as a whole.