K-12 Education

Greater Empathy, Greater Success

October 22, 2020  • Chloe Pressley, Senior at C.D. Hylton High School & Education and Society Program

When I think about standardized tests, I instantly become very anxious. At my high school in Northern Virginia, the stakes are high. Performance on our state tests determines whether or not students can graduate and influences our teachers’ and schools’ reputations. Beyond the stakes of the results, there are subtle inequities built into these tests. Standardized tests don’t adapt to race, age, experience [or lack thereof], nor the mental states of its takers, but it’s no secret that all of those factors can significantly influence a student’s score. As an African American teen, I’m cognizant that these tests aren’t written by people who look like me. Students of my description are expected to fail. Together, the expectations and barriers surrounding standardized tests cause massive stress to students nationwide. Standardized tests provide important data, but they should work to help students, not place further pressure on them.

Testing season is always a difficult time to manage for me due to the amount of brainpower I have to devote to studying. Even after a year’s worth of learning the material, I feel that I have to review every detail before test day. I am not superhuman, so I tend to forget the intricate details within material, especially if I learned those pieces of information all the way back in August. In typical interactions, I do not need to recall the specific year the Ottoman Turks overtook Constantinople, but that could be a multiple-choice question on the state history exam.  Standardized tests would be much more useful–and I think less daunting– if they assessed big picture concepts rather than specific details. 

In preparation for test day, most of my instructors devote about a week or two to reviewing the year’s material. If I’m lucky, a teacher will reserve an entire month. In this short review period, we fly through the material. After all, it’s impossible to relearn eight or nine months of material in just a month. Review opportunities should be integrated through the entirety of the school year. In freshman year history, my teacher, Mrs. Q, would put five to ten extra questions on each unit test. Each additional question would be related to a topic that we learned about in a previous unit. This forced my classmates and I to regularly review the material all throughout the year, which enabled me to score perfectly on the state test at the conclusion of the course. The following year, I had a different history teacher who did not actively review material, but she established a month-long review period. On that exam I still scored “pass advanced”, but it was not a perfect score. Consistent reviewing, in my case, is more effective. The expedited review before the test didn’t allow me to have a concrete understanding of the material.

In order to limit the stress of standardized tests, state officials and administrators should ensure that all students are receiving the same standard of teaching, not just the same curriculum. Even in the same school, students can have drastically different learning experiences depending on their teacher, which directly relates to state test performances. During my sophomore year of high school, I took an introductory chemistry course. My teacher was great at the subject: we had interactive experiments, course-related homework, and consistent opportunities for help after school. On the other hand, my friend, who had a different teacher for the same class, never received homework. In fact, most of her classes were spent watching movies and listening to lectures that were not related to chemistry. Initially, I was envious of my friend because she never had any stress regarding that class, whereas I was always actively applying new concepts and learning elements and compounds. By the time we had to take our state chemistry exam, though, I had learned everything I needed to know and felt prepared for the test. My friend had a very different experience. Because her teacher did not teach the course thoroughly like my teacher had, she spent weeks self-studying for the exam, which put significant stress on her. If all students had access to the same learning experiences, the tests would give a more accurate picture of students’ understanding, and everyone would approach the tests with less stress. 

 In addition to standardizing, teachers and administrators should examine other ways to relieve student stress through supplemental prep days, tutoring, and virtual platforms. If designated exam prep days are factored into each school’s year, students are more likely to be familiar with the material tested, which will reduce the anxiety of test day. Many students do not benefit from a simple one or two week review period, so states can try to implement tutoring for each course. Moreover, many students from low-income families do not have the financial capability to hire a tutor or stay after school. If tutoring was standardized through a virtual platform, it would allow students to access help from anywhere. In this digital age, students, including myself, always turn to online platforms like YouTube, Quora, or Quizlet when we do not understand a topic. For as helpful as these platforms are, the videos cannot replace being taught by a live teacher. To remedy this, schools can make similar videos, ensuring that all students have access to high quality, reliable information on their own time. 

When it comes to tests, stress is inevitable, but it can be limited if school officials can approach the process with a bit more empathy. Students are the primary party affected by standardized testing, so our individual circumstances should be considered and sympathized with. Acknowledge the disadvantaged. Ensure that every student has equal access to resources. This would make the educational playing field much more even, which eliminates the opportunity for insufficient learning environments. Most importantly, though, standardize the quality of education before you standardize our testing.