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 Meer


A 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.


Jennifer Heissel, Assistant Professor, Graduate School of Business and Public Policy, Naval Postgraduate School

Emma Adam, Professor of Human Development and Social Policy and IPR Fellow, Northwestern University

Jennifer Doleac, Associate Professor of Economics, Texas A&M University

David Figlio, Orrington Lunt Professor of Education and Social Policy and IPR Fellow, Northwestern University

Jonathan Meer, Professor of Economics, Texas A&M University


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