How high-stakes testing is affecting the mental health of Colorado teens

 

Earlier this summer, the College Board sent out Advanced Placement scores to hundreds of thousands of students across the country. These scores reflected on their academic performances back in May, and determine whether or not the sleepless nights of studying paid off. Emily Soesilo talked to students and healthcare professionals about the academic pressures of testing, and tells us what she learned.

 

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On Wednesday, July 5th, students huddled around their computers in anticipation, waiting for one particular email. As AP scores come out, so do feelings of pride – or disappointment.

In the last few weeks of school, students work hard to prepare for the upcoming Advanced Placement or AP tests, which decide whether or not they receive college credit for the AP course they took. While preparing for these tests, students often experience high levels of academic stress and additional pressure to succeed.

Neha Pesaramelli, a 9th grader at Peak to Peak Charter School, recently completed her first AP exams and said they were stressful.

“It was so unknown, and I’ve never heard about AP testing before and what to expect, really,” Pesaramelli said. “Between students who took AP Human Geo and students who took regular Human Geo, there was that stark stress being seen among the AP students. We did have a teacher who prepared us really well, but at the same time, sometimes with these kinds of things, you can never feel prepared enough, and so I think overall, yeah, the grade was very stressed and confused.”

Despite the stress AP and finals stir up, Pesaramelli thinks her efforts in school usually pay off. That doesn’t mean her mental health doesn’t suffer. “I always do well, but on the flip side, perfection is never attainable no matter how hard you work,” Pesaramelli said. “So, it’s like, what are you choosing to pick? Being perfect and having perfect results? Or, our own mental sanity?”

According to the National Institute of Health, academic pressure may result in higher levels of depression and anxiety among teens. According to a recent national survey, about 80% of students consider school somewhat, or a significant stressor, and 30% of students report “extreme stress.” The pressure to succeed pushes students to not only give up their time but also neglect their own well-being.

Pesaramelli says she finds herself making little compromises that can add up. “If I stay up one more hour tonight, then like, long term, I’ll be happier,” Pesaramelli said. “It’s just a sacrifice I have to make tonight. But then, after some point, once I start burning out, I don’t even have the motivation to start things in the first place.”

In the pursuit of getting good grades, students face the invisible enemy of perfectionism. According to Anne Robinson, a therapist from Two Rivers Therapy, pressure can come from a lot of different places. “It can come from peers, it could come from teachers, it can come from the media we’re consuming. It can come from parents. Typically folks that are feeling a lot of pressure are people that tend to put a lot of pressure on themselves in general. And right now academics are where that’s being focused,” Robinson said.

Another student who experiences these academic stressors is Josue Hernandez Guerrero. He says the pressure comes from his transition to higher education. “There’s a lot of expectations for you, whether that’d be like, ‘Oh, you need to go to college. You need to apply for programs, internships.’ But while you also take, like, so many AP classes and also ACT tutoring, so those expectations start to stack up.”

Josue Hernandez Guerrero is in the process of setting up his schedule for his freshman year in college. He graduated with the Class of 2023 as a first-generation student. From his perspective, the academic pressure didn’t root from trying to be “perfect,” but rather trying to set a strong foundation going into college. Although the origin of this academic stress was different, the effect ended up being similar. “Taking care of yourself and just doing self-care, going on a hike, things like that. They become less important to you almost. So at that point, you start to focus a lot of your time on school, and sometimes you don’t even notice how much time you’re putting into school just because you’re so focused on getting an A or just to pass by,” Guerrero said.

According to a study conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research, cortisol, the stress level hormone, increases by 15% during high-stakes testing week. In the face of academic pressure and stress, it can be very overwhelming for students to find a healthy school-life balance.

Therapist Ann Robinson has found multiple steps to help overcome these challenges in the presence of academic pressure:”The first one is getting realistic about our expectations. Like, what are we hoping for? What would be a successful outcome? And how do I help you get there… The second one is encouraging some exploration and experimentation. So we don’t have to be the best at everything we try. And how do we know what we like if we haven’t tried it? The third one that I like to share with folks is resourcing yourself well. And then the last two things that I generally recommend for folks are really taking a look at the balance that’s happening in our life and then the last one is by building a strong support system. This could be family members, friends, teachers, but also engaging with mental health providers can be really helpful.”

While academic pressure affects students in a lot of different ways, Robinson says to never tie how successful you are as a person to one test, no matter how many times you take it.

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