04/25/2012 11:41 am ET Updated Jun 25, 2012

The Pressure to Perform

The 10-year-old 5th grader from Martinez, California was clearly very smart and precocious beyond words. The end of the school year was in sight as we discussed her favorite subject, science. Somehow, without any prompting from me, the conversation moved from the solar system (at which time she reminded me that Pluto was no longer a planet as of 2006) to the standardized testing system. The little girl openly confided in me her fear of taking the upcoming (and dreaded) end of year test.
She explained how there was a lot riding on her testing performance because without the right score, her school might have to close. Her anxiety had clearly been provoked by an incident on the playground where her teacher pulled her aside to remind her that "your school needs you to do well." As she recounted this conversation, I could feel the pressure she felt to excel. Clearly to this bright and engaging little girl, this particular standardized test held more power than it should.
And, I believe, she's right.
When many of us attended school, standardized testing didn't bear such importance.  This practice of "high stakes testing" skyrocketed after No Child Left Behind (NCLB) mandated annual statewide testing in 2001. Since this act passed, testing has put a burden on our students to perform under pressure.
In other parts of the world, Finland for example, there is no standardized testing. Instead, Finnish teachers develop and rely on their students' interest in learning; teaching is derived from classroom innovation, and teachers are the sole authority in monitoring the progress of their students. Similarly, in Montessori schools, children are not tested: instead, student evaluations take place between the teacher and parents about what growth students have made and what skills they have mastered.
On the other hand, in countries like China, research has shown that frequent testing is beneficial to kids in the long run, even if students don't perform well. If teachers are supportive, students improve and receive satisfaction for conquering a challenge.
I contend that when done right, standardized tests can be fair and objective measures of a student's ability, they can help to motivate and empower students, and give them greater confidence in their ability to learn.
However, I know many students who dislike taking standardized tests. In some instances when confronted with a test, a child may exhibit extreme emotional and physical stress, and this pressure can bring about cheating -- by students and teachers -- because the student is anxious to perform well and the teacher wants to see his or her student score well. Ultimately, these assessments shape a child's sense of capability and achievement which later shapes how they evaluate and compare themselves with others.  When done wrong, high-stakes can discourage and demoralize students and lead to high dropout rates.
Then there is the issue of tests being biased against students from poorer socio-economic backgrounds because they do not take diversity into account. Cultural and language biases are difficult to eradicate entirely from standardized tests, and certain populations are often at a disadvantage when they take standardized tests.   And while students in large urban school districts have made significant progress on standardized reading and math tests in recent years, the achievement gap between black and white students is still high. 
The situation in Martinez, California is not an isolated incident. Across this nation, school systems are holding their schools accountable when test scores don't continually improve.  And after getting test results, schools districts often punish schools and students that don't do well instead of spending that time helping students improve. 
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan recently told Congress that 82 percent of American schools could fail to meet NCLB's goal of 100 percent proficiency on standardized tests by 2014, and proposed reforming NCLB to support the ideal that every single student can learn, achieve and succeed.
I agree with Duncan that that every student can, learn, achieve and succeed but for this to happen, we must create an unbiased, motivating and challenging way to evaluate students, so that they will want to learn and do well for their own personal growth and achievement.
There are many valuable purposes that can be served by student testing and assessment. Kids don't get self-esteem without a sense of personal achievement, but they also don't build self-esteem by being pressured to perform for all the wrong reasons.

Andres Alonso, CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools said it best when he said, "too often, we celebrate movement on test scores and forget that the movement has to be for all students." We must not forget every child can learn, just not on the same day or in the same way.