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American High Schoolers Stressed Over Tests

Overwhelmed by the heavy workload and focus on college prep

In the 2010 American Freshman: National Norms survey, 39% of girls reported being overwhelmed by college prep work as opposed to 18% of boys.
In the 2010 American Freshman: National Norms survey, 39% of girls reported being overwhelmed by college prep work as opposed to 18% of boys.

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Rosanne Skirble

Competitive pressures placed on young people in U.S. high schools are damaging many otherwise promising lives.

Nearly a third of students responding to a 2010 national survey of first-year college students reported they were overwhelmed by the heavy workload in their last year of high school.

Deborah Stipek, dean of the Stanford University School of Education, is an expert in what motivates students to learn and says they are stressed. And for good reason.  

“They are not enjoying what can be the incredible satisfaction of learning and developing understandings and skills. Leaning can be an adventure, but instead of an adventure it’s really about the test. It’s about the college application.”

Since it was produced in 2009, the documentary 'Race to Nowhere' has been screened before nearly 600,000 people across the United States and in other countries.
Since it was produced in 2009, the documentary 'Race to Nowhere' has been screened before nearly 600,000 people across the United States and in other countries.

In an editorial in the journal Science, Stipek says the trend in many high schools is to teach to the test, as her daughter recently reminded her. Relieved after completing her final Advanced Placement, or AP exam for a college-level French course, she told her mother she was happy never to speak French again.

“I think that revealed the real basic problem," Stipek says, “which is the AP courses that she was taking in French were not about learning French, not about being able to communicate with a different culture, or to travel, or to have a skill that could be useful in life. It was about getting a score on an AP test that would help her get into the college of her choice.”

Stipek says educators must begin to rethink homework policies, match students with colleges better suited to their interests and listen to what students say.  

“One of the things that schools are doing that we’re working with is doing yearly surveys of students to find out what their sources of stress and anxiety are and get their ideas on what the schools can do, what kinds of policies can be supportive of them. And this has been amazing, because we’ve gone into schools where they say this isn’t a problem and then they do a survey of the students and they are blown away by what the students say when they are actually asked.”

Perhaps that explains the grassroots success of the 2009 documentary film, "Race to Nowhere," that gives young people, their parents and teachers a voice.  The movie has screened before nearly 600,000 people in schools, colleges and churches across the United States and several other countries.  

One teenager profiled says she's consumed by homework. "I really can't remember the last time I had a chance to go in the back yard and just run around," she says.

Stipek, who was also interviewed for the film, says, "These are students who feel under enormous pressure to perform as opposed to learn."

Stipek adds that educators - and parents - must respond by helping students to sharpen their interests, engagement and intellectual skills, and at the same time to reduce their stress.  

Otherwise, she says, we risk killing young people’s enthusiasm for learning.

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