high-stress testing

How the stress of state testing might make it harder for some students to show what they know

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote

The annual ritual of state testing in elementary and middle schools often comes within an unwelcome side effect: jittery, stressed-out kids.

Now, a first-of-its-kind study documents some of what’s actually happening to students.

It found that students in one New Orleans charter network saw modest spikes in cortisol, a hormone caused by stress, leading up to state exams. And the students whose cortisol spiked most or crashed furthest did worse than predicted — suggesting that the test scores reflect not just what students know, but how they perform under pressure.

The five researchers behind the study call that a “stress bias.” The paper finds some evidence that students living in higher-crime, higher-poverty neighborhoods are most affected.

That’s not surprising from a biological perspective, said Pamela Cantor, a psychiatrist and the founder of Turnaround for Children, a group that works to address the effects of trauma on children in schools.

“What we’re in effect doing to kids who are exposed to adversity on a chronic basis is actually putting them in a highly unfair situation, where their biology may overreact to the stress and not give them a very good opportunity to reveal the things they likely know,” she said.

The research looks at fewer than 100 students, and some of the findings are ambiguous. “I don’t want to make broad policy claims based on this one paper with a relatively small sample size in one setting,” said lead author Jennifer Heissel, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School. But, she said, “if this is replicated in other settings for other students, we need to reconsider perhaps what we are using high-stakes tests for.”

The study, released earlier this month through the National Bureau of Economic Research, focuses on a network of three charter schools in New Orleans. The researchers analyzed an unusual data source: saliva samples of 93 elementary and middle students, obtained with parents’ consent, during the 2015-16 school year.

The research team compared cortisol levels of students at three points: during a regular week, a week when students took a low-stakes practice test, and the week students took the state test.

Cortisol is a hormone that generally increases after someone wakes up and declines from there. It jumps in response to stress or challenges and decreases due to boredom or disengagement.

The researchers focus on cortisol levels in the period right before the exam, when students were likely to be most be stressed about testing. Indeed, cortisol levels were about 15 percent higher at that time during testing week than they were during a regular week.

“That is in line with other stressors you might encounter through your day,” Heissel explained.

But some students responded more dramatically. “On average, there’s this increase, but individual kids are going in different directions,” she said.

Students whose cortisol noticeably spiked or dipped tended to perform worse than expected on the state test, controlling for past grades and test scores. Boys saw bigger changes than girls. and so did students from higher-poverty neighborhoods, though this difference was not statistically significant. (Keep in mind that the students in the study were almost all low-income, so there was limited room for comparison.)

Source: “Testing, Stress, and Performance: How Students Respond Physiologically to High-Stakes Testing”

It’s possible that some students’ jumps or dips in cortisol during testing week were due to other factors in their lives. But Cantor of Turnaround for Children said it’s not surprising that tests would induce stress, or that students more likely to have experienced trauma would respond differently.

“For children who face adversity in a chronic way, that system is pumped and primed much more so than other kids,” Cantor said. “If a child does overreact to a trigger, one of the ways that manifests itself is that they shut down, they freeze.”

Is that a “stress bias”? If tests unfairly penalize students who respond poorly to stress, that might suggest that “tests aren’t fully capturing what we want and perhaps what we are thinking that they capture,” said Heissel.

Another interpretation, she noted, is that the ability to perform well under pressure is part of what exams measure, and that it’s a skill “to be able to wrangle your stress response.”

The results raise a number of unanswered questions.

One is whether the results would hold for in-class exams administered by teachers. In many cases, those tests have higher stakes for students than do state exams, which in New Orleans have been used to grade and in some cases close schools.

Another is whether the way students are prepared for state exams might affect their stress. The paper offers limited information on the charter network being studied, which is anonymous. But a number of high-profile charter schools place substantial emphasis on preparation for state tests. It’s unclear whether this approach increases or reduces test-related stress.

Either way, the latest paper suggests one way to produce better scores is to ensure students stay calm during testing.

And a final question is, how else might the stress of testing affect students? Past national research offers mixed evidence on whether No Child Left Behind, the federal education law that led to the current state testing regimen, led to general increases in student anxiety.

Cantor said that the key to buffering against adversity is having warm, positive relationships, which can prompt the release of anti-stress hormones.

“A teacher who communicates belief and confidence and inspires trust in kids — that teacher is activating a hormonal system that opposes the effects of cortisol,” she said.

To Do

Tennessee’s new ed chief says troubleshooting testing is first priority

PHOTO: (Caiaimage/Robert Daly)

Penny Schwinn knows that ensuring a smooth testing experience for Tennessee students this spring will be her first order of business as the state’s new education chief.

Even before Gov.-elect Bill Lee announced her hiring on Thursday, she was poring over a recent report by the state’s chief investigator about what went wrong with TNReady testing last spring and figuring out her strategy for a different outcome.

“My first days will be spent talking with educators and superintendents in the field to really understand the scenario here in Tennessee,” said Schwinn, who’s been chief deputy commissioner of academics in Texas since 2016.

“I’ll approach this problem with a healthy mixture of listening and learning,” she added.

Schwinn’s experience with state assessment programs in Texas and in Delaware — where she was assistant secretary of education — is one of the strengths cited by Lee in selecting her for one of his most critical cabinet posts.

The Republican governor-elect has said that getting TNReady right is a must after three straight years of missteps in administration and scoring in Tennessee’s transition to online testing. Last year, technical disruptions interrupted so many testing days that state lawmakers passed emergency legislation ordering that poor scores couldn’t be used to penalize students, teachers, schools, or districts.

Schwinn, 36, recalls dealing with testing headaches during her first days on the job in Texas.

“We had testing disruptions. We had test booklets mailed to the wrong schools. We had answer documents in testing booklets. We had online administration failures,” she told Chalkbeat. “From that, we brought together teachers, superintendents, and experts to figure out solutions, and we had a near-perfect administration of our assessment the next year.”

What she learned in the process: the importance of tight vendor management, including setting clear expectations of what’s expected.

She plans to use the same approach in Tennessee, working closely with people in her new department and Questar Assessment, the state’s current vendor.

“Our job is to think about how to get online testing as close to perfect as possible for our students and educators, and that is going to be a major focus,” she said.

The test itself has gotten good reviews in Tennessee; it’s the online miscues that have many teachers and parents questioning the switch from paper-and-pencil exams. Schwinn sees no choice but to forge ahead online and is quick to list the benefits.

“If you think about how children learn and access information today, many are getting that information from hand-held devices and computers,” she said, “so reflecting that natural experience in our classrooms is incredibly important.”

Schwinn said computerized testing also holds promise for accommodating students with disabilities and provides for a more engaging experience for all students.

“When you look at the multiple-choice tests that we took in school and compare that to an online platform where students can watch videos, perform science experiments, do drag-and-drop and other features, students are just more engaged in the content,” she said.

“It’s a more authentic experience,” she added, “and therefore a better measure of learning.”

Schwinn plans to examine Tennessee’s overall state testing program to look for ways to reduce the number of minutes dedicated to assessment and also to elevate transparency.

She also will oversee the transition when one or more companies take over the state’s testing program beginning next school year. Former Commissioner Candice McQueen ordered a new request for proposals from vendors to provide paper testing for younger students and online testing for older ones. State officials have said they hope to award the contract by spring.

In Texas, a 2018 state audit criticized Schwinn’s handling of two major education contracts, including a no-bid special education contract that lost the state more than $2 million.

In Tennessee, an evaluation committee that includes programmatic, assessment, and technology experts will help to decide the new testing contract, and state lawmakers on the legislature’s Government Operations Committee plan to provide another layer of oversight.

Spring testing in Tennessee is scheduled to begin on April 15. You can learn more about TNReady on the state education department’s website.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with new information about problems with the handling of two education contracts in Texas. 

Class of 2018

Some Colorado schools see big gains in grad rates. Find yours in our searchable database.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Aurora Public Schools
Aurora West College Preparatory Academy graduates of 2018. The school had a 100 percent graduation rate.

Two metro-area school districts, Westminster and Aurora, recently in the state’s crosshairs for their low-performance, posted significant increases in their graduation rates, according to 2018 numbers released Wednesday.

Westminster, a district that got off the state’s watchlist just last year, had 67.9 percent of its students graduate on time, within four years of starting high school. That was a jump of 10 percentage points from its 57.8 percent graduation rate in 2017.

District officials credit their unique model of competency-based education, which does away with grade levels and requires students prove they mastered content before moving up a level. In previous years, district officials pointed to rising graduation rates that Colorado also tracks for students who take five, six or seven years, but officials say it was bound to impact their 4-year rates as well.

“We saw an upward tick across the board this past year,” said Westminster Superintendent Pam Swanson, referring to state test results and other data also showing achievement increasing. “I think this is one more indicator.”

Swanson said the high school has also focused recently on increasing attendance, now at almost 90 percent, and increasing students’ responsibility for their own learning.

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

In Aurora schools, 76.5 percent of students graduated on time in 2018 — a jump of almost 9 percentage points from the 67.6 percent rate of the class of 2017.

“We’re excited these rates demonstrate momentum in our work,” Aurora Superintendent Rico Munn said.

He attributed the increased graduation rates to “better practice, better pedagogy, and better policy.”

One policy that made a difference for the district is a change in law that now allows districts to count students as graduates the year they complete their high school requirements, even if they are enrolled in one of Colorado’s programs to take college courses while doing a fifth year of high school.

According to a state report two years ago, Aurora had 65 students enrolled in this specific concurrent enrollment program who previously wouldn’t have been counted in four-year graduation rates. Only the Denver district has a larger number of such students. Aurora officials said 147 students are enrolled this year in the program.

Those students are successful, Munn said, and shouldn’t be counted against the district’s on-time graduation rates.

Aurora’s previously rising graduation rates helped it dodge corrective state action. But its improvement this year included a first: One high school, Aurora West College Preparatory Academy, had 100 percent of its seniors graduate in 2018.

The school enrolls students in grades six through 12 in northwest Aurora, the most diverse part of the district. Of the more than 1,000 students, 89 percent qualify for subsidized lunch, a measure of poverty.

“This incredible accomplishment demonstrates the strong student-focused culture we have created at Aurora West,” said Principal Taya Tselolikhina in a written statement. “When you establish high expectations and follow up with high levels of support, every student is able to shape a successful future.”

Statewide, the four-year graduation rate once again inched higher, and gaps between the graduation rate of white students and students of color again decreased. But this time, the gaps narrowed even as all student groups increased their graduation rates.

(Sam Park | Chalkbeat)

The rising trend wasn’t universal. In some metro area school districts, graduation rates fell in 2018. That includes Adams 14, the district that is now facing outside management after years of low performance.

The tiny school district of Sheridan, just southwest of Denver, saw a significant drop in graduation rates. In 2018, 64.7 percent of students graduated within four years, down from 72.7 percent of the class of 2017.

Look up four-year graduation rates for your individual school or district in our databases below.

Districts here: