A new study suggests that changes in levels of cortisol, a hormone associated with stress, during weeks of standardized testing hurt how students in one New Orleans charter school network performed — and kids coming from more stressful neighborhoods, with lower incomes and more incidents of violence, were most affected.
Published in a recent working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research, the first-of-its-kind study contributes to conversations about chronic stress and testing, and helps clarify where those conversations intersect, indicating that one reason that family income tends to correlate with test scores may be because stress — both from the test and home environments — affects scores.
The researchers — Jennifer Heissel of the Naval Postgraduate School, Emma Adam and David Figlio of Northwestern, and Jennifer Doleac and Jonathan Meer of Texas A&M University — measured the stress-levels of children at the New Orleans charter school network, comparing the cortisol in their spit during weeks with high-stakes standardized tests — those that have implications for course placement, school sanctions or rewards, or education policy — and weeks without testing.
What they found is that, on average, students had 15 percent more cortisol in their systems the homeroom period before a standardized test than on days with no high-stakes testing. Students who showed the largest variations in cortisol between testing and non-testing weeks tended to perform worse on tests than expected given their classwork and performance on non-high-stakes tests, among other measures. Cortisol spikes weren’t the only culprit; some students’ cortisol dropped on testing days, which was also associated with lower performance.
“The decreases in cortisol is more a sign that your body is facing an overwhelming task and your body does not want to engage with the test,” Heissel says.