Testing, Stress, and Performance: How Students Respond Physiologically to High-Stakes Testing
A potential contributor to socioeconomic disparities in academic performance is the difference in the level of stress experienced by students outside of school. Chronic stress – due to neighborhood violence, poverty, or family instability – can affect how individuals’ bodies respond to stressors in general, including the stress of standardized testing. This, in turn, can affect whether performance on standardized tests is a valid measure of students’ actual ability. We collect data on students’ stress responses using cortisol samples provided by low-income students in New Orleans. We measure how their cortisol patterns change during high-stakes testing weeks relative to baseline weeks. We find that high-stakes testing does affect cortisol responses, and those responses have consequences for test performance. Those who responded most strongly – with either a large increase or large decrease in cortisol – scored 0.40 standard deviations lower than expected on the on the high-stakes exam.
We thank the anonymous school district and its staff for their invaluable cooperation, as well as Kaho Arakawa, Chernjen Lee, Royette Tavernier, members of the COAST Lab at Northwestern University, and seminar participants at AEFP, APPAM, Northwestern University, and the Western Economic Association meetings. Laura Scaramella at the University of New Orleans provided access to laboratory space. We are grateful for funding from the Spencer Foundation (Grant No. 2015000117) and the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University. The views expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Bureau of Economic Research.
- Standardized tests are widely used to gauge student capabilities and inform educational programming. Test scores can also...