A Circle on Stress and High-Stakes Tests

To the teacher:  

In this activity, which uses a Circle process, students learn a little about high-stakes testing, hear about how these tests have raised stress levels for some students and educators, and consider some steps they might take to lower any stress they are experiencing. The lesson can be used as a supplement to TeachableMoment’s other lesson plans on high-stakes testing, which explore the less personal side of high-stakes testing issue: Let's Talk About Testing, and High Stakes Testing & the Seattle Teachers Boycott.  
About Circles:  Since 2011, Morningside Center has helped introduce restorative circles into schools around New York City. Circles use a highly structured process to create a safe space where people can share important issues and experiences in an atmosphere of respect and concern for all.  Circle processes have been used in schools across the country to practice group communication, relationship-building empathy, healing, celebration, democratic decision-making, and conflict resolution/problem-solving. 
For more information about how to introduce restorative circles into your school, contact Lillian Castro at Morningside Center at lcastro@morningsidecenter.org.
For a description of the Circles process, see our Introduction to Circles on Teachable Moment. http://morningsidecenter.org/teachable-moment/lessons/introduction-circles

Opening ceremony

Explain that in today’s circle you’ll be exploring personal experiences with high-stakes testing and the increased stress these tests sometimes cause.  Stress isn’t necessarily bad.  In small amounts, it can help motivate you.  But when you’re stressed too much, or stressed too much of the time, it can affect your mood, productivity, and even your health.
Read the following quote by Fiona Wood from Six Impossible Things out loud:

“Stress level: extreme. It's like she was a jar with the lid screwed on too tight, and inside the jar were pickles, angry pickles, and they were fermenting, and about to explode.”

Send the talking piece around asking students to share a time they were stressed.  What happened?  How did the stress affect them?  
Hand out index cards and markers.  Ask students to draw an outline of their bodies and with a color marker indicate where stress manifests itself in their bodies.  Also write on the index card the emotion that they associate with stress. Remind students that stress is a symptom, not a feeling.  Though you may hear people saying they feel stressed, what they might actually be feeling is anxious, nervous, overwhelmed, depressed, angry, frustrated or afraid.
Send the talking piece around once more, asking students to read out the emotion of how stress makes them feel.  Ask them to contribute their index card to the center piece, before passing the talking piece to the person next to them.  

Background on High-stakes Testing

Share some or all of the following to frame today’s main activity:
High-stakes testing has become an increasingly prominent issue in education policy since 2002, when George W. Bush signed the "No Child Left Behind" law. This law required state-run schools receiving federal funding to administer annual, publicly reported tests. The Obama administration has further promoted high-stakes testing. The administration’s “Race to the Top” program ties federal funding for public schools to performance on high-stakes tests They’re called “high-stakes” because the test results have consequences for students, teachers and administrators. Test results are used for evaluation purposes and can be part of the determination of whether a school gets closed down or not.

Defenders of standardized testing argue that the tests are beneficial to students and educators, offering them objective feedback on their grasp of the material. They say testing improves student achievement by helping teachers focus on important content, and by providing information that can be used to make good decisions about students, teachers, and schools.

Opponents say that the emphasis on high-stakes testing narrows the curriculum, leaving less time for subjects like the arts, science, and history. They argue that often these tests don’t accurately measure the student’s understanding and growth – or the teacher’s competency. They also maintain that, the tests have a cultural bias and add to stress for many students and teachers. For these reasons, some students and educators are organizing to challenge the current emphasis on standardized testing. 

The rest of today’s lesson is set up so that we can actually listen to some students, teachers, and principals about the effects high-stakes testing has on them. Although the quotes we’ll be reading are from people who are responding negatively to the stress of testing, it is important to realize that people respond to testing in very different ways. There are plenty of people who are motivated by tests, or simply don’t feel a lot of tension over them.

Before you begin, send the talking piece around asking students to share their thoughts and feelings about high-stakes testing in their school.  Make sure to add your own thoughts and feelings about high-stakes testing as the keeper and their teacher.

Student and Other Voices on High-stakes Testing

Explain that in this next activity students will be asked to read a quote out loud.  These are mostly voices of teachers, principals, and students in response to the high-stakes tests in today’s public schools.  Students don’t need to read the source printed below the quote. 
Write the word FEELINGS on the board or chart paper, and after each quote, ask students to name the feeling or feelings that person was expressing or might be experiencing. Record their responses.
When students have finished reading and you have a good list of words recorded, prompt discussion with questions such as:

  • What feelings did we hear most often?
  • Do you relate to any of these feelings?
  • Which ones resonate most for you? Why?
  • Do you have a different reaction to tests than the people in the quotes? How?  

How can we respond to stress?

Tell students that there are many strategies for managing or reducing stress on an individual level, beginning with something as simple as taking a few deep breaths.
We can also address stress by changing – or working to change – the underlying condition or problem that is causing the stress. Often just the act of working with others to address a problem relieves stress because we are taking an active rather than passive stance toward the problem.  This also allows us to see how much we have in common with others, and gives us a chance to support each other, which reduce stress.  
Ask students to think about how they might address the causes of their stress. Ask the questions below and record students’ responses.

  • What can we do as individuals to reduce any kind of stress? (Responses might include deep breathing, writing, drawing, exercise, getting enough sleep, eating well, getting support from friends…)
  • What can we do to reduce stress before a test?  (Prepare well, learn strategies for focusing and test-taking, seek extra help if we need it…)

If the class has expressed strong concerns about high-stakes testing in general, work with the group to come up with a plan to learn more about the problem and develop a strategy for addressing it. 

Closing ceremony

Explain that as you read out the following poem, you’d like students to either close their eyes or pick a point on the floor or wall to focus on, while they breathe slowly and listen. 
SLOW ME DOWN by Kristone

Slow me down
Ease the pounding of my heart
by the quieting of my mind.
Steady my hurried pace with a vision
of the eternal reach of time.
Give me, amid the confusion of the day,
the calmness of the everlasting hills.
Break the tensions of my nerves and
muscles with the soothing music of the
singing streams that live in my memory.
Help me to know the magical, restoring
power of sleep.
Teach me the art of taking minute vacations,
of slowing down to look at a flower, to chat
with a friend, to pat a dog, to read a few
lines from a good book.
Slow me down,
and inspire me to
send my roots deep into the soil of life's
enduring values that I may grow
toward the stars of my greater destiny.


Quotes about the stress of high-stakes testing

A teacher said: "A few years ago, I really loved teaching, but this pressure is just so intense ... I'm not sure how long I can take it."
The Unintended Consequences of High-stakes Testing,  M. Gail Jones, Brett D. Jones, Tracy Y. Hargrove
A teen blogger, laura310, stated, "School is the thing that most high school students dread...There's so much homework, projects, and tests due in a short amount of time and sometimes it feels like it's the end of the world."
Principals have also noted the increased level of stress felt by teachers at their schools.  In one study, a principal "believed her teachers were working hard and shouldering greater amounts of stress in order to meet the expectations of the state."
Danielson, 1999, p. 64, The Unintended Consequences of High-stakes Testing M. Gail Jones, Brett D. Jones, Tracy Y. Hargrove
In this small survey of students who had already dropped out, 47 percent reported that school was "uninteresting." About 70 percent commented that they didn't feel "inspired" at school.
Testing the Joy Out of Learning  Sharon L. Nichols and David C. Berliner
“Educators are fed up with flawed accountability measures, and the new face of teacher unionism has its eyes fixed on changing the current culture of standardized testing mania. In a dramatic way, Seattle teachers and others are driving the national conversation on professional issues and school reform.”
High-stakes Testing & The Seattle Teacher’s Boycott Mark Engler
One student points out, “This is the easiest test you could ever take. … I mean, forget logarithms and algebra, forget knowing about government and the Bill of Rights. Instead, we read a two-page story and then answer 11 short questions about it such as, ‘What was the meaning of the word futile in paragraph two? A: generous, B: deceptive, C: useless, and D: applesauce.’"
"Teen Talk," 2007, Testing the Joy Out of Learning  Sharon L. Nichols and David C. Berliner
One Colorado teacher reports, “Our district told us to focus on reading, writing, and mathematics. … In the past I had hatched out baby chicks in the classroom as part of the science unit. I don't have time to do that. … We don't do community outreach like we used to, like visiting the nursing home or cleaning up the park that we had adopted. “
Testing the Joy Out of Learning  Sharon L. Nichols and David C. Berliner
“Common responses to ‘exam stress’ … include disturbed sleep patterns, tiredness, worry, irregular eating habits, increased infections, and inability to concentrate."
Tests + Stress = Problems For Students Daniel Edelstein
A principal in Brooklyn said that the fourth grade teachers in his school have told him that high-stakes testing is "giving health problems and high blood pressure"
Goodnough, 2001, p. A29, The Unintended Consequences of High-stakes Testing M. Gail Jones, Brett D. Jones, Tracy Y. Hargrove
A 12th grader writes, “Students (teachers as well) focus on only the [test]. It's almost as if they have been given an ultimatum: Either pass the test and get the ticket out of there, or pass the test months later and live with the disappointment all your life. It's not fair.”
Teen Talk," 2007, Testing the Joy Out of Learning  Sharon L. Nichols and David C. Berliner
In an extensive study of how teachers react to high-stakes testing programs…  reported five reactions.  First, publication of test scores produces feelings of shame, embarrassment, guilt, and anger in teachers. 
Preparing Students for High-stakes Test Taking in Reading John T. Guthrie    
An 11th grade student writes, “In Texas many public school districts have found raising their standardized testing averages to be the No. 1 goal of classroom curriculum. Consequently, school is no longer a forum where students can discuss the effects of alcohol, or the best method to achieve a life filled with value and pleasure, or the simple antics of their daily life.”
"Teen Talk," 2007, Testing the Joy Out of Learning  Sharon L. Nichols and David C. Berliner
One junior high teacher stated that “. . . the test raises the anxiety level of everyone.  The Superintendent likes to use the scores to point out the teachers’ weaknesses and create competition among the teachers.  He thinks that good scores equal good teaching.”
Preparing Students for High-stakes Test Taking in Reading John T. Guthrie    
A Latino student attending a high-poverty high school said: "We learn in isolation. We learn one skill one day or in a week and then we never see it again until test time."
Testing the Joy Out of Learning  Sharon L. Nichols and David C. Berliner
A 5th grader's ordeal with standardized testing: "He got headaches and stomachaches. He would ask not to go to school." His pre-test anxiety "lasted a solid month before the test" and "'even after the test, he couldn't let it go.'"
John Thompson: Are High-stakes Tests Here to Stay? Anthony Cody
A fourth-grade teacher in the Bronx reported, "I need to not feel that intense pressure that if the kids don't improve, our school will be closed down. ... I need a break so I can recover my strength. "
Goodnough, 2001, p. A29, The Unintended Consequences of High-stakes Testing M. Gail Jones, Brett D. Jones, Tracy Y. Hargrove
"Even third graders feel as if they are on trial. Students get the message that class work isn't what counts, and that the standardized exam is the truer measure. Sure, you did your homework and wrote a great history report -- but this test is going to find out how smart you really are."
Testing the Joy Out of Learning  Sharon L. Nichols and David C. Berliner
Some secondary students believed that the tests served the school’s interest but not their own personal interests. 
Preparing Students for High-stakes Test Taking in Reading John T. Guthrie