Skip to main content

The Anxiety of Test Taking

The Institute for Research on Education Policy and Practice at Stanford University just released a study on the effects of the California High School Exit Exam on graduation rates. About half of 50 U.S. states require students to take a similar test at the end of high school in order to graduate.

The researchers found that the negative effects of the CAHSEE fall disproportionately on minority and female students. As they write in their executive summary, "Among students in the lowest quartile of achievement, the CAHSEE requirement has no effect on the graduation rate of white students, but a large negative effect on graduation rates of black, Hispanic, and Asian students."


Following the seminal work of the Stanford psychologist Claude Steele, the researchers suggest that the idea of 'stereotype threat' explains the differences in performance. "Stereotype threat is the phenomenon whereby the fear that if one performs poorly on a high-stakes test it will confirm a negative societal stereotype about one's group (leading) to increased test anxiety among negatively stereotyped student groups — minority students and girls, for example — which in turn leads such students to underperform on such tests relative to similarly skilled non-stereotyped students."

There are a couple of interesting things to consider in the findings. First, the presence of Asians among those adversely affected speaks to how Asian and Asian-American achievement is in fact uneven, in contrast to the model minority stereotype of consistent, high achievement in school.

The effect of the stereotype threat on Asian students warrants further consideration because the stereotype here is one about the expectation of success, as opposed to the assumption of failure. It is as if some of the Asian students are, to use a sports metaphor, choking. They are expected to do well, and this expectation produces a certain type of test anxiety.

Coupled with the stereotype threat, there must also be anxiety produced from taking one exam that will make or break one's ability to graduate. That is an awful lot of pressure.

Soon after President Obama's inauguration, The New York Times ran a story about a preliminary study that examined what the researchers called the Obama effect. The achievement gap between whites and African Americans on a 20-question exam was clearly present before Obama's inauguration and statistically insignificant after.

It will be interesting to see the effect that both the president and Michelle Obama will have on test taking among women and minorities in the years to come.

Sign up for our free e-newsletter.

Are you on Facebook? Become our fan.

Follow us on Twitter.

Add our news to your site.