I’m no stranger to exam stress. Having worked as an English teacher in two West London comprehensives for the best part of a decade, I’ve spent many a wet break trying to convince a student that the world won’t stop turning/their parents won’t stop loving them/their entire futures won’t collapse into a black hole of despair if they don’t get the grades they need.
In the UK, immense pressure is placed on students during exam season. Those taking GCSEs or A levels face the unenviable slog of exam after exam – the culmination of years of study ending with all their fragile, predicted eggs in one basket.
When my family moved to Chicago in January 2018, I was secretly relieved to be able to remove my son from a system that to me felt more and more like an exam factory. This might seem to some like a controversial view for a teacher to have, but perhaps less so for a parent.
I was hopeful that the US education system would suit my bright and creative boy.
Child in a sweet shop
Initial signs were good: the breadth of subjects that students can choose from created a child-in-a-sweetshop – or a more American candy store – reaction from my son (no cutting of the arts in this particular well-resourced suburb of the city). So far, he has studied TV and radio production, fashion, horticulture and American sign language along with the usual maths, English and science.
From their very first day, high-school students accumulate points towards their final grade-point average score. Furthermore, while there are important subject finals each year, students only have one (or at most two) external exams to contend with, rather than having to face a dozen or more at the end of their school career.
Along with their high-school diploma, American students who wish to go to college must take either the Sat (which originally stood for Standardised Aptitude Test) or the Act (American College Testing). These standardised tests are used by all colleges when making admission decisions, measuring key skills along with a student’s readiness for college.
Students don’t have to take both the Sat and the Act, and the tests can be taken multiple times – colleges only use the best scores.
Surely that must relieve some of the pressure? Well, not exactly. If you’ve been following the news recently, you will have seen reports of the college-application scam involving a number of celebrities who have tried to bribe top colleges into giving places to their academically average kids.
With just one test to take and plenty of opportunities to improve scores, why bother with bribes? Something doesn’t quite add up – are children of the super-rich just too privileged to bother with the Sat? Or perhaps the truth is that, to have any real chance of going to a top college, the test scores have to be off the chart.
The tests themselves are no walk in the park. The Sat is a gruelling three-hour exam with three tests (reading, writing and maths) plus an optional 50-minute essay. With a total of 154 questions, that’s just 1 minute 10 seconds per question. Scores range between 400-1600, with college scholarships often available only to those with the highest scores.
So perhaps it’s little wonder that, rather than leave things to chance, some parents are taking matters into their own hands to ensure success for their kids. The American Dream is, after all, built on just that.
Media headlines do nothing to remove the perception that getting into a good college is difficult – even impossible – for anyone other than those with a superhuman IQ, thus creating a rat race that recent high-profile court cases have shown cannot even be won by rats with very deep pockets.
Not surprising then that this creates the perfect storm for stress in American high schoolers, many of whom are relentlessly tutored to within an inch of their lives.
As a substitute teacher at two local high schools, I’ve seen this anxiety first hand, and it’s not just caused by the college-entry exams. During a library session, one young girl received a call from her mother (yes, during class) berating her for a poor test score. The girl dissolved into tears, then had a full-blown anxiety attack. The pressure on her was immense – borne, I’m sure, out of her mother’s fear that her daughter could only achieve success with perfect scores.
According to the American Psychological Association, students are experiencing stress at growing rates, which doesn’t seem surprising given the culture of sky-high academic expectations. During last year’s exam season, certified therapy dogs were used in my son’s school – just one of the ever-more imaginative anxiety interventions.
While at first glance there seems to be less emphasis on final exams in the US, I can’t help wondering if I may have taken my son out of the frying pan, only to place him in the fire.
Thankfully, we’re not competing for a college place, and plan to return to the UK after he finishes high school. Nonetheless, for his school friends, achieving the American Dream might well turn into a very real nightmare.