NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH
NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH
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Testing, Stress, and Performance: How Students Respond Physiologically to High-Stakes Testing

Jennifer A. Heissel, Emma K. Adam, Jennifer L. Doleac, David N. Figlio, Jonathan Meer

NBER Working Paper No. 25305
Issued in November 2018
NBER Program(s):Children, Economics of Education

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.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w25305

 
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