After doing several workshops for students planning to take the CUNY Proficiency Exam (CPE) I’ve been thinking about some fairly basic questions about standardized testing that are nonetheless important ones. I’ve come to realize (as have other Fellows at Baruch) that one of the most important functions of these workshops is to alleviate student anxiety. While some students do not seem to worry too much about the exam, many (some of them excellent students) become rather anxious especially in regards to the time constraints. This raises a number of questions for me regarding the effectiveness of this form of assessment. Are we really setting up a situation that accurately measures student performance of these skills given the stress of the testing situation? According to this article, we aren’t.
As health blogger Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen points out, “Scientists have long known that long-term stress impairs brain cell communication, but they’re just now learning that even short-term stress – such as a few hours of anxiety – can negatively affect cognitive skills.” Pawlik-Kienlen cites research from the University of California (Irvine) School of Medicine as well as the Laboratory of Stress Research at Douglas Hospital Research Center to make this point. Given this negative affect of stress on memory it would seem that we are setting up students for failure. Of course, it could be argued that the anxiety-producing test situation is preparation for stress soon to be experienced by students in the work world. If this were the case, why wouldn’t we coach students on ways to manage this type of stress early in their educational careers? In general I understand the need for assessment of student learning; however, I wonder if it isn’t time for us to start thinking about some different ways of accomplishing this goal outside of the traditional timed exam.