Around 60,000 students in the graduating class of 2016 are now sitting their final Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) exams across the country, with many relieved it is almost over. However the pressure placed on these students during the build up to this point in their education is seen by many as unnecessary.
Teachers, parents and psychologists are concerned about the mental state of the students sitting these exams, and year 12 students are also noticing the health decline in themselves and those around them.
“I was totally prepared for my first set of exams this year, and then afterwards during the two weeks break I just kind of realised how pointless all this stress and pressure was, but I was still feeling stressed out and anxious,” Adams says.
“From that point I really just started to dislike the education system a lot. I’ve started getting lots of headaches this year and I’ve been to the doctors, but they don’t really know why.
“The best explanation is high stress levels, and I can’t focus on study when I have them. The longest one lasted two months and I still had to do tests.
“I’ve got another friend…who had to go to the doctor to get sleeping pills because she can’t get to sleep because she’s so stressed about school and she’s had to miss an exam and get a medical certificate for it because she just couldn’t cope.”
Adams feels as if students who do complete their schooling are often pushed to reach the highest possible ATAR results, even though, according to the Universities Admissions Centre, the average score seems to consistently sit at around 68.
Many are now asking why so much pressure is placed on high scoring in year 12 when it does not seem to be entirely necessary or fitting for all students.
And research is proving it is not only ATAR students who are placed in such high pressure situations for exams. There are many who now believe that students as young as eight-years-old are experiencing similar stress levels as those in year 12, when sitting the National Assessment Program for Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) for the first time.
State School Teachers’ Union of Western Australia’s senior vice president Lincoln Rose was a teacher for 10 years, and understands how standardised testing can have a negative impact on students of all ages.
“Many early childhood educators are increasingly concerned about a crowded curriculum and the drive for students to achieve better NAPLAN results,” he says.
Rose believes this pressure can sometimes begin even before students sit their first NAPLAN tests.
“Changes to practices in some schools are rapidly formalising education for children from kindergarten to year 2, including the use of inappropriate strategies for this age group such as increasing the use of workbooks, formal seating arrangements with chairs and desks, less outdoor time to develop physical and social skills, and unrealistic expectations on children,” he says.
The overall message from organisations such as SSTUWA is that the standardised tests given out to students can cause stress and other mental health problems, but are also limited in measuring a student’s true mental capability.
“Standardised testing is really a snapshot and can give a good, but not great, picture of how a student has absorbed knowledge,” Rose says. “Exam results should be used with other information to determine things like entrance to university.
“There is a lot of research indicating that emotional intelligence is a better predictor of future success in life than IQ. The importance of this is largely ignored by politicians and leaders of education departments.”
Perth university student Ellery Stevens says she can still remember how much NAPLAN testing lowered her enjoyment at school, and how this built into stress in later years.
“I have never really succeeded in national standardised testing, and in many areas in tests like NAPLAN, my scores were really low and nowhere near the average for my age group, but things like abstract thinking and creative writing were way above the average, they just weren’t tested as much,” she says.
“I think this is the issue with the education system and the concept of current standardised tests. They don’t cater to everyone and so we as students end up losing confidence in our intelligence and stressing out when we fall behind, even in primary school.”
Perth child psychologist Andrew Fuller has created workshops to help children from ages eight to 14 deal with the stress of NAPLAN.
The message he wants to get across to these young students is that these standardised exams do not define their intelligence or potential for the future.
“You have many skills that will not be assessed by NAPLAN. Tests and exams are important, but they are not the big predictors of life success,” he says.
“Do your best and prepare as well as you can but don’t make the mistake of thinking that your score on NAPLAN is a measure of your intelligence or predicts your future.”
The effects of creating such high pressure schooling environments can be seen not only in Australia but across the world.
A study published in the journal ‘Educational Psychologist’ in 2010 researched standardised testing on a global scale. It described the results of a survey asking students from around the world to explain their emotions and mental states during school.
This research found the pressure for achievement in testing, classroom competition, and expected punishment if failure occurred, were strongly related to student anxiety and stress levels.
“The system has definitely moved in the wrong direction,” Rose says. “The idea of standardised testing is fine, but it is misused.
“We as teachers need to change the way we deal with students in relation to exams in order to help them realise that they really don’t need to be as stressed and panicked as they are, because in the end their best should be enough.”