Opting In – “Don’t Stress Out!”

In my last post I argued that only PSSAs provide benchmarked, validated, and reliable results about school performance.   Perhaps I have convinced you that PSSA data is uniquely useful to schools, especially to those who run them.

But even if tests are useful, is testing worth the additional stress it places on our already stressed-out students?

What is Stress?

The harmful effects of stress have been well-publicized in the last decade.  Stress not only affects your mood and your behavior, but also your body (with one mechanism being the production of the hormone cortisol – info here).    Over the long-term, stress appears to cause increases in heart disease, diabetes, and even arthritis (info  here).

But our generic use of the term “stress” glosses over a well-documented fact:  there are different kinds of stress.   Long-term, unrelenting, chronic stress is the real threat to our wellness.   On the other hand, intermittent stressful events of daily living seem to pose no threat at all to human health.

Some research shows daily stresses may even be good for us.  We seem designed to respond positively to daily stress, and have built in resilience mechanisms.  Overcoming daily challenges builds personal resilience in children, leading to greater long-term achievement.  Some researchers point out that if we choose to see stressors in  a positive light, our physical and mental health actually improve as a result of stress. (TED talk on making stress a positive here.)

So is which kind of stress does standardized testing create?Stress Curve 2

PSSAs are a once a year event that last for only a few hours (though the testing is often spread out across several days).   Moreover, the level of stress from taking the assessment should be low.  There are no direct consequences to a student of “not doing well” on the PSSA.  The test result does not go on their report card.  It is not reported to colleges.  It doesn’t impact their placement or ‘tracking’ in school.  With little to no direct consequence to the student, the level of anxiety would seem to be lower than that of a final exam, a class project, or taking the SAT.   It certainly seems to be on a different scale altogether than significant life stressors like enduring a parental divorce, having chronically-ill parent, living in a dangerous neighborhood, or being regularly bullied at school.

Instead of thinking of ‘test stress’ as bad stress, perhaps we need to change our thinking.  The fight or flight mechanism is well-known, and it is designed to protect us from danger and actually heightens our ability to rise to the challenge.  It is the fight or flight response that might enable a potential victim to outrun an enemy, or a lifeguard to plunge into the ocean to save a drowning swimmer.I dont test well

And the same mechanism operates in milder situations when there is no real danger, like when you have to give an important presentation at work, or when you are getting ready to take the field for a big game, or when you sit down to take an exam.  One outer manifestation of the ‘fight or flight’ mechanism is the feeling of ‘butterflies’ in our stomach.  Our nervous system is waking us up.  Our senses are heightened.  We have additional energy to rise to the challenge.  We have greater focus on the task at hand.  And our immune system becomes temporarily more productive.  Once the speech is done, the game has been played, or the exam is finished, the hormones drop off and we return back to our normal state.

Isn’t PSSA testing exactly the kind of “once and done” stress event that our bodies and minds seem designed to handle naturally?

Is Stress Normal?

Not only is the stress brought on by tests usually the ‘good kind’ of stress, but it also prepares kids for what is ahead in life.  Like it or not, modern life is full of tests, most of which have much larger consequences than a PSSA.

Almost all colleges have admissions requirements.  High school grades matter, and those Biased to Intelligencegrades are largely based on tests.   And there are SATs and AP tests.   Testing doesn’t end there.  Those who will go on to graduate school face graduate admission tests, and the graduate schools also look at undergraduate grades, which are based largely on exam results.

Once formal schooling is completed, many professions have licensing and certification exams.  Want to be a doctor, a lawyer, a physician assistant, a nurse, a teacher?  Pass a test.    Want to be a CFO?  Better pass the CPA exam somewhere along the line.  Want to drive a car or fly a plane or drive a UPS truck?  Pass a test!  Want to join the foreign service, the CIA, or the armed services?  Pass a test!  Want to be a crane operator in Pennsylvania?  Pass a test.  Actuary? Massage Therapist?  Pharmacist?  Test. Test. Test.

Life is also full of events that aren’t nominally a test, but play the same function.  Opening night of the play is a test.  Your dance recital is a test.  Trying out for the basketball team is a test.  Your job interview is a test.  Meeting a deadline at work is a test.  Hitting a sales target is a test.   Getting married is a test.  Raising kids is a big test!  Vacation Stress

Life is one test after another.   Do we intend to shelter our kids from these events?  Would we encourage our kids to “opt out” of the job interview since it is too stressful?  Would we tell them not to pursue a law degree since there is stressful bar exam at the end?   I don’t think so.  “You can do it,” we would say.  “Work hard at it, and do your best.” And when they are stressed, we give them tools to manage their stress and relieve it.

When it comes to tests, don’t we want to challenge our kids to “step up” and give it their best shot?  Opting out seems like the wrong message, given the number of tests our kids will face in K12, college, and in their professional lives.

(Although it effects only a small percentage of the population, test anxiety it is a clinical condition that can require professional intervention.  Opting out may be the right decision for these limited situations.)

A Pattern of Stress

Maybe we should think of PSSAs not as a single stress event, but as part of a pattern of stress in our students’ lives.  Maybe it is not the stress of the PSSA by itself, but the never-ending barrage of school exams, piano recitals, basketball games, homework, planning for college, and on and on.  Maybe PSSAs are just one thread in a tapestry of stress.   And if this stress goes unchecked, perhaps it leads to real problems for our teens.

I don’t doubt this is the case for some students, especially at the high school level.  But are standardized tests really the leading cause?   Why target the PSSA for “opt out” and not the piano lessons, or the gymnastics class, travel baseball, or the SAT?  Is the PSSA really even the culprit?  Would removing standardized tests materially lower the stress meter for very many kids?

Where does stress come from?

If there is any long-term, harmful stress around standardized tests, especially for our elementary students, where would it be coming from?  I can only surmise that the stress would have to be coming from us — the adults.

Are adults inside our schools creating testing stress for our students?   Some researchers have hypothesized a link between teacher stress and student stress (see here).  Because test results can and do impact teacher performance evaluations, teachers may feel stress and transmit that to their students.   (Some have called these tests “high stakes” for this reason — more on this in a future post.) Stress App

In my experience as a parent, I have not seen this teachers adding to the stress.  Rather, I see our teachers encouraging students to do their best, ensuring they are well rested by reducing homework during testing,  and making the test day special.   In Stress Appaddition, our schools give kids practice exercises so that students know what to expect on the exam … a strategy that is recommended by the experts to reduce test anxiety.

And as parents we should also do our part. Are we putting stress on our kids to ace the PSSA? Perhaps our message instead should be: “Take the PSSA seriously and do your best.   And then let’s not think about it again until next year.”


For most students, the PSSAs should be low-stress and low-anxiety.  There are no stakes for students, and any stress should be short-term, not chronic.

Rather than sheltering kids from these everyday stress events by “Opting Out” , we should instead equip them to cope with short-term stressors.  Kids and adults alike are equipped with a ‘fight or flight’ mechanism, that helps us rise to meet these daily challenges.  If we face challenges with the right attitude, minor stresses may actually lead to higher functioning kids who are more resilient.

And let’s be real:  tests will be important in our kids’ future, whether we like it or not.  Test-taking is useful skill to acquire, with life-long application.

We should insist that our schools (and we ourselves) strike the right tone on standardized testing.  If there our kids are stressing out, we are most likely the problem, not the test itself.