The High Cost of High Stakes Testing

Mira Hu (Photo credit: Arcadia Police Department)
Mira Hu (Photo credit: Arcadia Police Department)

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.

“She is a perfect kid and everything is good, but I don’t know what happened,” Mira’s father told KTLA-TV. He urged her to return home.

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’s a common running joke among second-generation Asian Americans that our parents start us on college prep before we begin potty training. The joke didn’t seem so funny to me when I was a kid, however. I remember earning minutes of TV by defining vocabulary words correctly — while I was still in 4th grade. I remember being rewarded for finishing homework early by getting extra “Mommy Homework,” which always involved problem sets and practice exams from a dog-eared stack of Princeton Review test prep tomes.

I didn’t remember being dressed in a crimson-colored onesie while still an infant, but my mother showed me the one she’d bought for me, proudly pulling it from storage on the day I headed out to college.

That’s because to my parents, it wasn’t enough for me to just go to college. There was only one school they saw as a fitting goal, and it was the reason they came to America, my mother said, hoping that one day they would have kids who would grow up to attend it. That was Harvard University, the only school whose brand name shone brightly enough to reach across the waters to Taiwan. Other schools might offer a more dynamic curriculum, better access to senior faculty, a greater amount of financial aid. None of that mattered. To them, it was Hafu Daxue or bust.

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.

Students at Gunn reflected earlier this year:

Junior Yuki Klotz-Burwell is particularly worried because her twin brother typically bests her academically, particularly in math and science. “Both my parents are computer scientists,” she says. “My brother’s really good at everything STEM [science, tech, engineering, and math]—which they value a lot and is basically what Gunn and Palo Alto are all about. If you’re not into that, you feel that you are not going to succeed.” Her friend Ryeri Lim, a reserved junior originally from Korea, concurs: “I feel like I’m never doing enough, not using my time wisely, not working hard enough. It goes deep, this disappointment in ourselves.” At Gunn, she says, “we don’t have any time for fun now, so we’ll get into a good college and make money, so we can be happy in the future.” Still, they don’t blame their school, and they don’t blame their parents. “It’s more our community,” says Lisa. “Our schools have to reflect the ideals of our community.”

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.

Writes Matt Richtel for the New York Times:

In addition to whatever overt pressure students feel to succeed, that culture [of Silicon Valley’s focus on needing to be the best to succeed] is intensified by something more insidious: a kind of doublespeak from parents and administrators. They often use all the right language about wanting students to be happy, healthy and resilient — a veritable “script,” said Madeline Levine, a Bay Area psychologist who treats depressed, anxious and suicidal tech-industry executives, workers and their children.

“They say, ‘All I care about is that you’re happy,’ and then the kid walks in the door and the first question is, ‘How did you do on the math test?’ ” Ms. Levine said. “The giveaways are so unbelievably clear.”

Denise Pope, an education expert at Stanford, calls this gulf between what people say and what they mean “the hidden message of parenting.”

But here, and in lots of other ultrahigh-achieving communities and schools, Ms. Pope said that children are picking through the static to hear the overriding message that only the best will do — in grades, test scores, sports, art, college. “In everything,” she said.

“I hear students tell me that if I don’t get into X, Y, Z college, I’ll wind up flipping burgers at McDonald’s,” said Ms. Pope, who is working with Ms. Levine to counsel at the high schools.

Ms. Pope said that wrongheaded idea becomes an emotional and physiological threat when multiplied by at least three other factors: technology that keeps teens working and socializing late at night, depriving them of essential rest; growing obligations from test-prep classes and extracurricular activities; and parents too busy to participate in activities with their families.

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:

  • 1-800-273-8255 (TALK), 24hr National Suicide Prevention Hotline, >150 languages available
  • 1-877-990-8585, 24hr Asian LifeNet Hotline, Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese, Korean, Fujianese available

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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