Testing, Stress, and Performance: How Students Respond Physiologically to High-Stakes Testing (WP-18-31)
Jennifer Heissel, Emma Adam, Jennifer Doleac, David Figlio, and Jonathan MeerA potential contributor to socioeconomic disparities in academic performance is the difference in the level of stress experienced by students outside of school. Chronic stress – due to neighborhood violence, poverty, or family instability – can affect how individuals’ bodies respond to stressors in general, including the stress of standardized testing. This, in turn, can affect whether performance on standardized tests is a valid measure of students’ actual ability. The researchers collect data on students’ stress responses using cortisol samples provided by low-income students in New Orleans.They measure how their cortisol patterns change during high-stakes testing weeks relative to baseline weeks. They find that high-stakes testing does affect cortisol responses, and those responses have consequences for test performance. Those who responded most strongly – with either a large increase or large decrease in cortisol – scored 0.40 standard deviations lower than expected on the high-stakes exam.