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High-stakes testing is affecting the mental health of Colorado teens

The College Board released the Advanced Placement scores in July.
Maeve Conran
Rocky Mountain Community Radio
The College Board released the Advanced Placement scores in July.

Earlier this summer, the College Board sent out Advanced Placement scores to hundreds of thousands of students across the country.

These scores determine whether or not the sleepless nights of studying paid off.

In the last few weeks of school, students worked hard to prepare for the AP tests, which decide whether or not they receive college credit for the AP courses they took.

While preparing for these tests, students often experience high levels of academic stress and additional pressure to succeed.

Neha Pesaramelli, a 9th grader at Peak to Peak Charter School in Lafayette, Colorado, recently completed her first AP exams.

“Between students who took AP Human Geo and students who took regular Human Geo, there was that stark stress being seen among the AP students," she said.

"We did have a teacher who prepared us really well, but at the same time, sometimes with these kinds of things, you can never feel prepared enough, and so I think overall, yeah, the grade was very stressed and confused.”

Despite the stress that AP and finals stir up, they act as the finish line to an exhausting year.

Pesaramelli thinks her efforts in school usually pay off, but not without putting her mental health on the line.

“Perfection is never attainable for anyone, no matter how hard you work,” she said.

“So that unattainability means that people keep working to be perfect and it's just not like possible. So, it’s like, what are you choosing to pick? Being perfect and having perfect results? Or, your own mental sanity?”

The pressure to succeed pushes students to not only give up their time but also neglect their own well-being, leading to a high risk of burnout.

According to a recent national survey, about 80% of students consider school somewhat or a significant stressor, and 30% of students report “extreme stress.

According to Anne Robinson, a therapist from Two Rivers Therapy, pressure can come from a lot of different places.

“It can come from peers, it can come from teachers, it can come from the media that we’re consuming. It can come from parents, although I think that's a smaller percentage than we like to think it does," she said.

"Typically folks that are feeling a lot of pressure are people that tend to put a lot of pressure on themselves in general. And right now academic is where that’s being focused.”

Another student who experiences these academic stressors is Josue Hernandez Guerrero.

He says the pressure comes from his transition to higher education.

“There’s a lot of expectations for you, whether that’d be like, ‘Oh, you need to go to college. You need to apply for programs, internships.’ But while you also take, like, so many AP classes and also ACT tutoring, so those expectations start to stack up,” he said.

Josue Hernandez Guerrero graduated with the Class of 2023 as a first-generation student.

He is in the process of setting up his schedule for his freshman year in college.

From his perspective, the academic pressure didn’t root from trying to be perfect, but rather, trying to set a strong foundation going into college.

Although the origin of this academic stress was different, the effect ended up being similar.

“Just taking care of yourself and just doing self-care, they become less important to you almost. So at that point, you start to focus a lot of your time on school, and sometimes you don’t even notice how much time you’re putting into school, just because you’re so focused on getting an A,” said Guerrero.

According to a study conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research, cortisol, the stress level hormone, increases by 15% during high-stakes testing week.

In the face of academic pressure and stress, it can be very overwhelming for students to find a healthy school-life balance.

Therapist Ann Robinson has found multiple steps to help overcome these challenges in the presence of academic pressure.

”The first one is getting realistic about our expectations. So, what are we actually doing? What would be a successful outcome? The second one is encouraging some exploration and experimentation. So we don’t have to be the best at everything we try," she said.

"The third one that I like to share with folks is resourcing yourself well. And then the last two things that I generally recommend for folks is really taking a look at the balance that’s happening in our life, so how much time are we spending on our academics versus how much time are we spending on our basic needs. And then the last one is by building a strong support system. For students this could be family members, friends, teachers, but also engaging with mental health providers can be really helpful,” said Robinson.

While academic pressure affects students in a lot of different ways, Robinson says to never tie how successful you are as a person to one test, no matter how many times you take it.

This story was shared with KSUT via Rocky Mountain Community Radio, a network of public media stations in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and New Mexico, including KSUT
Copyright 2023 Aspen Public Radio.

Emily Soesilo
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