The emotional effects of standardized testing: Fireside at Five, Chat 1

By Loren Deutsch

LAS and Fireside at Five, a solution-driven group fostering world-wide conversations and community-based opportunities, held the first of four scheduled online, video chats centered around mental health and education. The first chat, Shame, Anger, and Anxiety: Uncertainty Around Standardized Testing focused on the experience of preparing for a high-stakes exam during a pandemic. We had prepared discussion topics aimed at how students felt about test preparation during a time of such uncertainty but ultimately we realized there were sentiments about test preparation regardless of the Coronavirus.

It’s been said that preparing for a high-stakes exam is like training for a marathon, equally demanding, time-intensive and sometimes interspersed with periods of progress or procrastination. Both require reservoirs of strength and their outcome can greatly impact one’s future. High-achieving test scores opens doors just like placing first in a race. Many of the participants at the Fireside Chat described the pressure to achieve felt like being judged. Low achievement suggested diminished accomplishment and one participant stated, “it feels like [you’re] being put on trial”, a sentiment that was echoed by others.

At a time with generous uncertainty, cancelled or postponed exam dates have interrupted test preparation for many people. The ambiguity that surrounds these interruptions leaves learners with indeterminate stretches of study time that can ignite or exacerbate feelings of frustration, isolation, shame, and anxiety. Many in the Fireside chat found it challenging to maintain their test preparation with a sense of vigilance or motivation when the test date was cancelled or postponed. One participant stated, “Usually, I mentally prepare how I will use my time and energy in weeks and days before the exam. Now that my test date is uncertain due to scheduling conflicts from the pandemic, I feel stressed anticipating how to resume my preparation in earnest”. Another participant discussed feeling emotionally exhausted and stated, “As an essential health care worker all I could initially focus on was holding myself together. I missed a month of study time for my boards”.

Prior to meeting, LAS shared a physician burnout inventory along with articles about emotions and learning in medicine. During the chat, as these resources were briefly referenced, all agreed that they did not feel emotionally exhausted by their patients, rather, it was the uncertainty of upcoming test dates and pending achievement outcomes that felt most draining. One participant equated achievement on these exams with whether or not one is viewed as a good physician.

Although Chat 1 was initially geared toward exploring the stress and pressures associated with standardized testing during a pandemic, it ended up providing a platform to discuss the long-term effects of standardized testing, in general. The chat included graduate students, medical students, fellows and learning specialists, and within each sub-group the shared sentiment was that standardized tests have long-lasting negative effects on well-being. When standardized tests cause us to feel judged or ashamed, it is time to reassess how we measure knowledge.

Our next Fireside at Five chat is Friday, May 15, 2020. The topic, The Culture of Silence That Surrounds Mental Health and Medicine, will explore how mental health is stigmatized, and how the stigma is amplified in spaces where it is important to “keep pushing through” and care for others at the expense of self-care. To tune into a live stream of the chat, visit at 6:00pm Central on Friday, May 15, 2020.

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