Over the weekend, 16-year-old Mira Hu went missing in San Marino, California. Hu — a student at San Marino High School — had been dropped off at nearby Arcadia High School on Saturday to take the SAT college entrance exam. However, when her parents arrived to pick her up, Hu was nowhere to be found: hours later, she sent a text message to her brother that said Hu was running away due to the pressure of her SAT exam performance and the college admissions process.
Yet, perhaps it is precisely the pressure to be “the perfect kid” that could be causing anxiety for students like Mira Hu.
As the debate over college admissions reaches new heights in the Asian American community — Emil Guillermo of AALDEF rightfully labels it the new Asian American civil war — often we hear critics of affirmative action argue that holistic review‘s de-emphasis of standardized test scores through its consideration of other applicant information, on the other hand, amount to a lowering of admissions standards. Many have set their sights not just on race-conscious affirmative action, but on holistic review itself. For some of affirmative action’s opponents, college admissions should be based primarily or exclusively on high-stakes college entrance exams; this, they argue, would achieve a real “meritocracy”.
The inadequacies of the SATs in predicting college success has been well-discussed on this site. We’ve spent less time, however, on the psychological impact of such a proposed system of high-stakes testing: the extreme pressure it places on high school students.
It is well-known among mental health researchers that teenagers and young adults are among the highest-risk population for anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts. Roughly 1 in 3 college students experience depression symptoms so severe they impact daily functions. Meanwhile, anxiety levels among high school students is at an all-time high, with one study reporting that anxiety levels for the average contemporary teenagers are about as intense as would be measured in an institutionalized psychiatric patient in the 1950’s.
A major contributor to this anxiety is the college admissions process, which for many students becomes a veritable horse race of high-stakes testing. While our culture lets some students fall completely through the cracks with the message that higher education is inaccessible for them, other students are inundated with the message that every aspect of their lives should be about preparing for application to a prestigious college.
For some Asian American children, the pressure to attend a selective 4-year university can hit extreme heights. In an op-ed for CNN last year, Jeff Yang writes:
It should come as no surprise, therefore, that even within the already high rates of anxiety among the nation’s youth, Asian American youth are even more likely to experience depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation.
Students are told that every waking minute should be dedicated to building their college application package, with an extreme priority placed on studying for standardized exams like the SATs. An entire economy exists within (middle-class and wealth) Asian American communities around the intense grooming of students for college admissions: some families reportedly pay thousands of dollars for college preparatory programs that micromanage every aspect of a child’s life. Children are warned that failure will have devastating consequences. Sociologists Jennifer Lee and Min Zhou have documented in their new book (“The Asian American Achievement Paradox”) how our community’s emphasis on high achievement — our “success frame” — can place significant stress on Asian American children, both in terms of the anxiety associated with what it takes to meet our criteria of success, as well as the anxiety created by an “achievement paradox” for those children who fail to meet our high expectations.
In short, our children are told that their entire self-worth is dependent upon getting into a school like Harvard, and that if they perform below expectations on a single exam, they are total failures. How can we not be concerned about the psychological toll that kind of pressure will have?
Arcadia police have said that Mira Hu is likely traveling to northern or central California from San Marino, to escape the pressures she felt in our high stakes test culture. Ironically, however, northern California’s Gunn High School in Palo Alto, California is in the midst of their own crisis over high stakes college preparation and entrance exams: over the past academic year, several students at this highly competitive high school situated just across the street from Stanford University have died by suicide. The vast majority were Asian American.
When I run my own workshops on Asian American mental health among college students, similar anxieties are frequently expressed, coupled with a failure within our community to openly discuss this stress.
Is it time, perhaps, for us to take a good, hard look at the undue emphasis our community places on college prestige and admissions? Is it perhaps time for us to think about what we’re saying when we focus so much of our energies on getting our children into Harvard, as if a Harvard offer letter is the defining metric by which we measure our kids’ merit and success?
We tell our kids that to be good children and good Asian Americans is to be high academic achievers (and often in STEM-related fields). But when we say this, what are we also saying to those children who only achieve mediocre score on the SATs or fail to become valedictorians? What happens to their sense of self-identity and self-worth when they fail to perform as we expect them to, racially and culturally? What does this kind of high-stakes testing culture say to and about kids who simply don’t want to go to Harvard, because they think the school would be a bad fit? What happens to the students who are bright and intellectually gifted, but who simply don’t perform well on standardized exams? Or, alternatively what happens to those kids who do push themselves to the limit and end up with a strong SAT score and an offer to a selective college, only to discover that the personal happiness we promised would come to them with these achievements never materializes?
Holistic review exists because the SAT exams are an imperfect assessment of student merit; but, it also exists because people are more than their test scores. Holistic review forgives applicants for weak performance on any one metric by allowing applicants to be judged as multifaceted applicants with diverse strengths and passions. No one person should be expected to let their entire future depend on their performance on a single 4-hour test written on a single morning in a high school gymnasium somewhere; as if everyone is the same. If I learned anything in college, it was that we are not just the sum of what we got on our SATs and where we went to college; yet, this unbalanced outlook on what success looks like is exactly what we teach our children to believe and pursue, with sometimes devastating consequences.
We spend so much time as a community talking about getting our kids into Harvard — so much so that some Asian Americans view admittance to the top-ranked liberal arts college in America as some sort of failure. Yet, when we do so, we only reinforce the idea that all of us should want to go to an Ivy League school, and that all of our kids should work their butts off to go there, too.
We spend almost no time thinking about the high cost of this hyper-competitive culture of high-stakes performance on college entrance exams on our children. We spend almost no time thinking about the kind of pressures we place on our kids when we define success so narrowly that they no longer have the space to simply explore and to discover themselves, and even to occasionally stumble while doing so.
It takes only a moment to realize that our kids are trying to tell us about the overwhelming anxiety they feel when trapped in our suffocatingly narrow and rigid “success frame”. So, why aren’t we listening to them?
When we tell our kids that they must be “perfect”, we don’t give them the space to just be human.
Anyone with details about Mira Hu’s whereabouts is urged to call Arcadia police at 626-574-5121.
If you or someone you know may be depressed or struggling with any other mental health concern, please check out these resources:
If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, please call:
Read More: Jeff Yang on CNN: Asian parents: Your kids are not robots
Update (6/9/2015): The LA Times reported that 16-year-old Mira Hu returned home safely last night after calling her parents requesting to be picked up from the local library. Police are now investigating her whereabouts during her disappearance.
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