The Self-Esteem Trap: Why Students Should Not Sacrifice Their Mental Health For Standardized Tests

Parents often credit the self-esteem issues of their children to television, video games, and social media. There is truth in these beliefs, but as adults replace their children’s cell phones with textbooks, a more cunning threat to mental health—standardized tests—prevails. Amidst the Coronavirus pandemic and the cancellation of school-related activities, questions have recently arisen about the validity and value of the SAT and ACT. In short, there is none.

The culture around standardized tests is simply toxic. Students are raised in environments that praise Ivy League schools, which boast their entrapment of “perfect” students with 1600 SAT and 36 ACT scores. These unrealistic standards burden the whole education system and its constituent high school students. Standardized test results are regarded as indicative of school performance and sometimes impact the funding a school receives. Administrators, striving to attain or maintain high ranks, then narrow their curriculum to mimic the content of tests or turn to various forms of cheating. However, columnist Christine Emba reports in The Washington Post, “Students studied for standardized tests and nothing else, leaving them entirely unprepared for classes when they arrived at the universities to which they had gained admission.” Students disregard the purpose of school, learning, and are ultimately left with talents undiscovered and passions uncultivated. Moreover, they begin to equate their intelligence and worth with the scores they receive. This toxic mindset can yield unfavorable psychological effects, including low self-esteem, stress, anxiety, and depression.

This testing culture is especially detrimental to the POC community. Although most students regard their scores as indicative of their intellect, a high-achieving individual can perform poorly just as a low-achieving individual can perform well on the test. The SAT and ACT are not measures of knowledge and aptitude; they are measures of affluence. Books, preparatory courses, and private tutors are expensive, yet these resources provide testing strategies that improve scores. Standardized tests, therefore, marginalize students of lower socioeconomic families and schools, which disproportionately consist of people of color. For instance, in his novel How to Be an Antiracist, Ibram X. Kendi states, “The use of standardized tests to measure aptitude and intelligence is one of the most effective racist policies ever devised to degrade Black minds and legally exclude Black bodies.” The SAT and ACT reinforce the notion that people of color are intellectually inferior when in actuality, it is often the uneven access to test preparation resources that handicap them.

Moreover, other aspects of a student’s high school transcript can give greater insight into their character. Extracurricular activities indicate what passions a student possesses. Service hours reflect the integrity of an individual and the way their admittance may positively impact the school environment. Supplemental essays show what life experiences have shaped a student. It is these aspects that colleges should value and boast. In fact, schools are beginning to recognize this, attempting to make the admissions process more holistic. Many colleges have adopted test-optional policies, while some have implemented a test-blind approach. Scott Steinberg, the Vice President of University Admissions at the University of New England, justified the school’s test-blind policy stating, “Our research has shown that a student’s performance in high school is the most significant predictor of academic success at UNE. Standardized tests provide very little—if any—incremental value beyond the high school record and grade point average.”

Now, the high school class of 2022 is embarking on their college admissions journey. Whether you choose to submit or omit your standardized test scores, let this article serve as a reminder that your scores—mere numbers—can not define who you are, what you are capable of, and the type of future you deserve.