SAT: Student Anxiety over Testing: An Investigation of Mental Health and Academia in Education Systems

Veronica Abramson, sophomore quantitative finance major at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J. reflected on her years before college. Her sundae was not the delectable cookie dough kind or the refreshing rocky road-kind – it was stressful instead of sweet, what should have been “the best four years of her life” melting out of the picture.

“I used to roam the halls with stacks of SAT and AP test books, topped with study guides — the not-so-nice cherry to my ice cream sundae called ‘my high school experience’ that was slowly falling apart,” she said.

Like Abramson, linking tribulation to testing is, unfortunately, the universal norm. The New York Times referred to the SAT as “the test under stress” in 1999, with a negatively-hitting snowball effect on the present. Harvard University, a dream school for many, reported in 2016 that 75 percent of students were more stressed about testing then they had been in previous years.

“I had 11 AP classes and corresponding exams, two standardized subject tests and I took the ACT and SAT a combined six times,” Abramson counted, now realizing how much was on her plate. “I feel like every day after I came home from school, I would lock myself in my room, whip out my prep books and get to work–after I scheduled at least three tutoring sessions for the upcoming week.”

Now, with the rise of college-ready instruction, high school districts are offering a Persian buffet of Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) courses, pushing and persuading its pupils to take a forward step in their educational career. However, Ginny Vega, High School Counselor at Freehold Regional High School District in Monmouth County, N.J. is not the biggest cheerleader for these course offerings.

“The district would like students to take AP exams, honestly, because they are a nationally-recognized measure of performance in public high schools and give clout to the district,” she says. “When students are done with AP exams though, they aren’t doing much for that extra month they have in the class after the test – so what is that proving to our education system? We are teaching to a test.”

Aside from the $96 fee for each exam, there is an additional $40 fee if a student signs up late. Then, if a student registers for an exam and decides to cancel, it is another $40. 

Extra fees implemented in 2019, in total, are almost as much as the exam itself. Vega emphasizes that standardized test organizations are a business more than an aid to students, where students are now stressful clients rather than ambitious learners.

“Test stress is immense,” she continues. “This year, we have had the most instances of work we have done with anxiety and class refusal is daily. We have students who come in who aren’t sleeping properly, just panicked about going to class and stressed about performance.”

Vega also notes how a rise in education-based anxiety is not just from testing but also family and peer influences as well – a numbers-driven competition to rise to the top. She mentioned receiving several phone calls daily from parents asking who the best tutor is for their son or daughter.

“People were taking AP classes who showed no interest in the subject itself and were taking them for the sole purpose of boosting their weighted GPA, all to have a higher class rank and look better for colleges,” Abramson said. “One person that I knew was so determined to become valedictorian that she took an AP-level art class without ever holding a paintbrush.”

The so-called art amateur, Ellie Gabriel, is now a sophomore biomedical engineering student at Yale University. And, without fail, she was named valedictorian for her graduating class.

“I tried to make the most of my time when I was at school,” Gabriel noted. “Lunch was always a working lunch and, even when I was walking to class, I opened up my psychology book so I was not too overwhelmed later on. Time was precious, especially with the stress of ivy league applications constantly on my mind.”

From being involved in four honor societies to partaking in science and math leagues, Gabriel was a nonprofit organization founder and four-year soccer athlete who crafted her empire to stand out in the college process – even with an overpowering schedule.

“Every time I left my sophomore year chemistry class, I had a mental breakdown,” Gabriel remembers. “My agenda was jam-packed, and suddenly my color-coding system was just a big rainbow of stress.”

It is not at all a surprise that students have a lot on their plates but standardized testing-overload is not just a period of efficient cramming but it is also a continuous hustle that never seems to end.

“That ‘AP’ before a class name doesn’t mean that you are just taking a more challenging class but you are preparing for a hefty test for 10 straight months, maybe more,” Gabriel said. “I had an AP chemistry exam in the morning and I had no break, not even a breath, and I was running to my AP psychology exam in the afternoon.”

And the preparation certainly did not end with the ring of the final bell – the most diligent of students scheduled even more standardized-testing preparation once they arrived home, almost the same block of time as the average school day.

“If I was not going to an after-school commitment, I prepared for tests from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. straight,” a routine Gabriel knows by heart. “I usually ate dinner while doing work at my desk. It was stressful entering my room in broad daylight and then leaving my room seeing the moon outside, not realizing how much time has passed.”

But who can blame students for the amount of pressure that standardized testing presents? After all, waiting in the testing line, walking to a classroom with every educational poster ripped off the wall and transforming from humans to testing engines seems equivalent to prison-like behavior. Not to mention, The Princeton Review’s website features “last-minute SAT cram tips,” reminding students to bring their passport and a light snack even though their glamorous travel destination is a testing center filled with other distraught and distressed high school students.

Dr. Jean Kirnin, a psychology professor at The College of New Jersey, believes this process to be “more rigid than TSA,” reflecting that this new testing model is much different than hers years ago–all Dr. Kirnin had to do was sharpen her pencils the night before the exam, prep weeks before (without tutor instruction) and not even think about a certain score to obtain.

“I didn’t even get to appreciate the new English and math concepts I was learning because I was so focused on getting at least 1450 out of the 1600 scale,” Abramson confesses.

Students like Abramson are engrossed by the number of their score that the learning process is at the backburner of their focus. AP exams, taken by more than 1.24 million students in 2018, only provide a score from 0-5, offering no feedback detailing answer errors and correct responses.

When the College Board was contacted, every high school student’s least favorite “board” of any kind, a customer service representative hesitated and was flustered when asked if it is possible to request an overview of correct responses – responses that are vital for improvement on future exams.

She was unable to assist and offer feedback. If every representative was unable to offer score reports, roughly 1.24 million students would be left estranged to develop better test-taking skills.

“Some students get so stressed about their tests that they start to see ‘test anxiety’ as a component of their personality, like it’s an aspect of their being,” Boris Dvorkin, a full-time instructor at Kaplan, recognizes. “If you had to put on a tuba concert to get into college and you didn’t know how to play the tuba, you’d feel pretty stressed about it. But it’d be weird to say that you have ‘tuba anxiety’ – what we call ‘test anxiety’ is really just one specific instance of regular old anxiety – the kind that comes from having to do something you aren’t ready for at high stakes.”

Dr. Kirnin ties her psychometrics background in crafting IQ tests for Prudential to standardized testing. She mentions that test companies teach you to take the test – the art of “process of elimination” and scoping out key words – more so than teaching critical and verbal skills. Dr. Kirnin believes these two skills are critical for not only the “numbers game” of the SAT but also student comprehension and ability. 

But improvement is attainable, especially if a student is lucky enough to enroll in standardized testing-related tutoring. And, many students of the wealthy class are inclined to sell their souls to test-prep companies, evidenced by parents spending up to $10,000 on study aids for their college-bound children.

“I don’t think people realize how expensive it is just to send standardized testing scores to a college, let alone six or eight,” Abramson added. “The whole process is a money-making machine catered to people who could afford it.”

Companies that succumb to this model are Kaplan and The Princeton Review, with programs that cost almost $2,000. One tutor even charges up to $1,000 for only one hour of services.

Dvorkin confirms that there were over 340,000 students who enrolled in Kaplan services just last year, including tens of thousands of SAT, ACT and PSAT students. And, he informs that it is rare to see one out of 340,000 stress-free.

In his extensive overview of how Kaplan works, Dvorkin explains that not every student starts at the same testing “baseline.” Some students walk into a Kaplan tutoring session with a 1200 score on their SAT and can only raise their score by 400 points. Yet, Dvorkin explains that these last 400 points are more difficult to earn.

“We have a Higher Score Guarantee, which says that when you prep with Kaplan in an HSG-eligible program, we guarantee you’ll score higher on your official test,” he continues. “If you don’t, you can choose to continue your prep for free – or get your money back for your program.”

While students enrolled at Kaplan can save money if their score does not go up the 1600-ladder, it is typical for the average student to pay over $1,000 in pursuit of a top-notch score.  

“I had to have spent at least $2,000 just in books and online testing services alone,” Gabriel estimates. “While I found many free practice tests online, I tried to take advantage of every opportunity to stand out when applying to ivy leagues.”

However, despite Gabriel’s comfortable financial situation, she recognizes that not everyone is as fortunate as her.

“The average student who cannot afford the same luxuries as I did, as harsh as it sounds, will not reap prestigious benefits just because that is how the system works,” she says. “I think colleges are more holistic nowadays than they used to be, but if you do not have a certain score – like a 1400 for example – admissions counselors will probably not give your application a second glance just because there are so many applicants. That is just the way it is.”

Echoing the inconsistencies in student accessibility is Dr. Adaurennaya C. Onyewuenyi, a psychology professor at The College of New Jersey (TCNJ), who specializes in academic achievement and racial identity development, among other studies.

“The current education system is set up to ensure some people have access and some people do not,” she says. “The way that the system is created, those who have the money and the means, this is not a problem for them. The middle class – because they can afford the payment for educational resources, in most cases–may not have subsidized programs offered to them.”

Although Dvorkin recognizes Kaplan is one of the most expensive for test prep services, he did not fail to say, on behalf of his company, that “it’s long been part of our mission to make test prep available to as many students as possible.” Kaplan offers courses for as low as $99 – on demand courses – which include video lessons and tutorials. If a student prefers more comprehensive and live courses, they begin at $599. Additionally, Kaplan offers no-cost events throughout the year from free practice tests to admissions seminars.

But still, Dr. Onyewuenyi believes people of color may also feel unconfident in their racial identity and select the “I do not wish to answer” tab on educational aid applications, hindering them from accessibility to some of these test-prep services. Vega comments on how this affects high school stress and performance.

“Bill and Melinda Gates created Khan Academy, one of the free programs we promote because it gives disadvantaged students, everyone, a level playing field,” explains. “And when students heard who made it, they were like ‘Oh!’ It takes having to explain the background of it because that is how society is, basing everything off a brand name – Joe Schmo down the block didn’t use that, he used Princeton Review.”

And while standardized testing and stress are often linked to teenagers, the connection is not initially established at a high school level. Jessica Gentry, the Virginia-based kindergarten teacher whose Facebook post – explaining why she quit her teaching job – went viral is a tangible testament to how mental health-related issues are rooted in childhood education.

She went from having a passion for her students to having a “customer service mindset” – one similar to high school educators and tutors remodeling learning from being wholly enjoyable to mentally excruciating.

“Some students were carefree while taking tests, just circling answers and not having that pressure,” she remembers. “But then there were the kids that struggled–that knew that they struggled – and I would have kids crying. I couldn’t help them because I had to read questions to them like a robot, and the affirmation that I could tell they wanted from me was an early form of anxiety.”

Victoria Vricella, a sophomore communication studies major at TCNJ, reflects to her days in kindergarten, suggesting that mental health trends have spiraled to extremes.

“Kindergarten was a lot focused on learning in interactive ways with other students in the classroom, whether it was playing games or watching shows and making crafts,” Vricella said. “It was a lot of creative processes that we used to learn. I think it is ridiculous that students are facing stress as early as kindergarten because, as I remember, it definitely was not a stressful time.”

Gentry advocates for mental health at an early age and, while schools bear the brunt of these issues, she believes these problems stem from the home. After quitting her teaching career, she continues to join teaching groups on Facebook to keep spreading her message.

“You don’t feel the pressure as much in kindergarten, but you certainly feel it as you grow older into high school and college,” Gentry highlights. “In order to help students, a firm relationship has to be set in place to diminish different anxieties that students develop.”