By the time Nils Remole started his senior year at Darien High School in September 2007, he had taken more than two dozen state- and federally mandated tests. In addition, there were class tests, the PSAT and SATs (twice), and he was enrolled in three Advanced Placement classes, each of which carried intensive, college-level finals. By late fall he was buckling under the accrued weight.
“I understand the reasons for the tests,” he says. “But by the time you hit high school — I mean, Darien High is already so challenging — you’re prepared, but it’s certainly nerve-racking.”
Added to the test load was the anxiety of waiting for letters or e-mails from the thirteen colleges to which he had applied. The day before Nils was to hear back from Dartmouth, he suffered an ocular migraine. “I guess what happened,” he recalls, “was that I was under so much stress that part of my brain shut down and I couldn’t see out of my left eye for about an hour. That happened three times that day, and after that it probably happened another dozen or so times.”
Remole is far from alone. In fact, the pressure to do well on tests and thus have a shot at top-tier colleges is so intense that many high school students in New Canaan and Darien report being stressed out.
There is no denying that kids in the two towns do exceptionally well. New Canaan and Darien students consistently score among the highest in the state and even the nation on standardized tests. But administrators have begun acknowledging that testing has become excessive, and they’ve taken steps to bring the process into balance and also to reduce the stress.
What they’re finding themselves up against, however, is not just the pressure to achieve from parents, from society in general or from increasingly selective colleges. Most of the pressure comes from the students themselves, who appear to be more self-driven than perhaps any previous generation.
Assessing the Tests
The battery of tests that constitute the academic lives of Connecticut students began well before the No Child Left Behind Act.
Starting in 1985 the state introduced the Connecticut Mastery Test, or CMT, which is given every other year in the fall to students in grades four, six and eight in mathematics, reading and writing. A decade later the state began administering the Connecticut Academic Performance Test, or CAPT, to tenth graders; it covers the four basic curricular subjects — mathematics, reading, writing and science — in nine individual sessions taken over a period of nine days, with scaled practice tests ahead of time to prepare for the actual CAPT.
This state program appeared to work well. But in 2001 President George W. Bush signed No Child Left Behind, which requires annual standardized tests for students in grades three through eight and, beginning last March, an additional test in science in grades five and eight. The law also mandates states to correct problems in school districts that fall short of federal goals and places sanctions on schools that fail to make adequate yearly progress.
In 2005 Connecticut became the first state in the nation to sue the federal government over No Child Left Behind, arguing against both the sanctions and the costs of the new tests, which it estimated at more than $40 million, with no federal aid to cover those costs. The New Canaan Board of Education joined 100 other school boards that wrote a letter in support of the state’s action. (In April 2008 a federal judge dismissed the last claims in this lawsuit.)
“This is a community where people understand benchmarks and accountability, and where people expect those to be part of an overall program,” says Dr. David E. Abbey, superintendent of New Canaan schools. “But they also understand that a broader-based look at students is a better way to go.”
Abbey worries that the law will erode the larger educational mission that’s long been in place in New Canaan and Darien. “The danger is that school districts will define themselves by a narrow range of metrics and assessments and will simply teach to the tests,” he says. “A second danger is that you narrow your curriculum, so that you cut down on physical education, art, music, world languages, electives, technology education — things that we think are important.”
A Delicate Balancing Act
The trick for educators, of course, is to balance performance with well-rounded educational goals and real learning. Rather than teach to the tests, New Canaan and Darien administrators say they’re trying to meld the two.
“Most of the state standards are imbedded in our curriculum and our students don’t even realize that they’re preparing for the tests because they’re just learning,” says Dr. Mary Kolek, deputy superintendent of schools in New Canaan.
Rocco DiCarlo, who is acting assistant principal at New Canaan High School and coordinator of CAPT testing at the school, agrees: “We don’t go in and say, ‘Okay, today we’re going to teach CAPT.’ We try to develop an awareness of the types of questions, but we also want to teach test-taking skills — that’s the priority, not the tests. If we give students the skills, they’ll succeed on the tests.”
In both New Canaan and Darien, multiple assessments are in place to let administrators and teachers know how students are doing at a given moment. Yet Bob Pomer, director of guidance at Darien High School and coordinator of testing at the school, sees an inherent problem in the assessment process. “The truth of the matter is that there’s such a lag between students taking the tests and that information arriving in the hands of educators that sometimes it’s not timely enough for us to determine placement or anything else,” he says.
Another problem for both districts is their image based on the percentage of students who pass the four segments of CAPT tests, a picture that changes annually. “Every year it is a different group of kids taking those tests,” Pomer notes. “So where it may look as if we’ve shown significant improvement or a significant decline in math, for example, from one year to the next, in reality it may be a particular group of students who were — or weren’t — strong in that subject area. It’s not a really accurate measure of what the district may or may not be doing.”
There may be a deeper problem in school testing and assessment in the district that, ironically, is rooted in success rather than failure. It is the pressure to succeed — the expectation
that students will, by and large, do very well academically — that appears to be producing stress, not just among the brains and grinds but across the board.
“I think at every level there is a tremendous amount of stress,” says Cindi Rivera, a guidance counselor at New Canaan High School. “Certain kids hit a level of stress where they feel they never have any downtime — they’re always preparing, The ambitious wish they could take more classes — they want to add more to their programs, but there are only so many periods in the day and only so much time. The kids at the top are not only competing with their peers, they’re also trying to one-up themselves.”
Remole, the Darien High graduate, who is starting his sophomore year at George Washington University, clearly sees the downside to academic ambition. “In Darien there’s enormous pressure,” he says. “It’s actually a big problem. A student did a study of binge drinking among seniors at Darien High and found that it’s something like four times the national average among seniors.”
Also among seniors there’s intense competition to get into the best schools possible, especially the Ivy League. Claudia Powell, who graduated from New Canaan High in June 2008 and will be a freshman at George Washington, remembers the pressure-cooker atmosphere in high school. “Everybody is taking the same tests, everybody is getting their scores, you know one person is doing better than another — it just becomes a huge competition,” she says. “I have friends who didn’t want to say where they were applying because they were afraid that other people would apply there and increase the competition. It became a big deal, when it probably shouldn’t have been.”
And the repercussions don’t end at graduation. Cindi Rivera reports hearing of colleges receiving burned-out high school graduates. “You know, the whole goal was to get into college,” she says. “Once they get there they have nothing left.”
Although students as young as twelve and thirteen are now taking SAT prep courses, the real pressure begins building at the start of junior year and doesn’t subside until winter or early spring of senior year.
Like a growing number of current high school seniors, Charlie Hibbens is taking two AP and one honors class this fall in Darien, while volunteering at the fire department and Waveny Center and working after school at his parents’ store. As a junior, Hibbens says, “I went to bed around midnight or 12:30 a.m. and I got up around 6:30 or 6:50. I know that I should sleep more and choose sleep over studies, but that’s not America. America is work now and live later. All the AP kids stay up late.”
Hibbens fears that his work ethic still might not be good enough. “I’m probably shooting for Ivy schools, but I don’t think I’ll get into them,” he says. “It’s kinda hard now for Fairfield County kids getting into school because they’re all applying to good schools.”
What’s more, like Hibbens, a good many of them are enrolled in multiple advanced placement courses. As counselors become more concerned about student stress, these AP classes — long the gold standard of success in high school — have come under scrutiny.
“The AP is a good program, but it’s a strain on those kids,” says Pomer in the Darien guidance office. “So many feel as if they have to take every AP that they can possibly take. We see some kids who are taking three and four — even five — AP exams.
I think that factor, more than the testing itself, is the area of concern. It’s all driven by students who are trying to set themselves apart from others. They’re driving themselves.”
What causes this striving for high scores? At New Canaan High School, Rocco DiCarlo traces students’ drive to get into the top colleges directly to their environment. “We’ve gotten into a moment of preparing for preparing,” he says. “Take the PSATs. The P is for practice, you know? And now we have individuals who are taking preparation courses to practice! What are we talking about? I have to be honest: When you live in a community like New Canaan or Darien, there is competition with yourself. The more successful a community, the higher the expectation to continue to achieve.”
In recent years the pressure to get into the most prestigious colleges has begun seeping down into the lower grades. At Middlesex Middle School in Darien, seventh and eighth graders who reach the advanced stage of the mastery tests in reading, writing or math qualify to take the SATs, which are optional.
Principal Deborah Boccanfuso defends the testing lineup at the middle school level. “We have to be accountable to the districts and to parents,” she says. “Tests are not the end-all and be-all for us, but they are not going to go away. I liken tests to a photo album — it’s a snapshot in time.”
Caroline Farrington, who graduated from Middlesex in June, chose her college in second grade: Stanford. She took the SATs for the first time as a seventh grader and scored so high that she was offered full scholarships at three elite prep schools, which the family declined.
A ninth grader at Darien High School this fall, Caroline is taking every honors and accelerated class available, plus three electives. She’s also involved in ambulance corps training and taking Latin after school with a coach. Latin is offered in high
school, her mother, Susan Farrington, explains, but she doesn’t have room in her schedule to take it. Plus she takes two dance classes after school, but those are just for fun. “She’s a very busy kid,” her mother adds, “but she’s also a very motivated kid.”
As director of Advanced College Consulting, her college consulting business, Susan Farrington coaches a dozen motivated students a year, the majority of whom are in eighth grade, though some are in fifth. Earlier than that, she says, “It’s ridiculous. But if you wait to come to me in high school, it’s too late. You don’t want to come in tenth grade and say, oh, my gosh, I was on the wrong track for English and now it’s too late to fix it, because there are too many prerequisites for too many classes. Unless you have taken them in ninth or tenth grade, you can’t get into them at a later date. What’s wrong with a little guidance and preplanning? Parents need to know what options are available as early as possible.”
Caroline, meanwhile, has been going to a dissection lab in Boston to work on hearts and brains since the age of seven.
“I think it’s kind of disgusting,” her mother admits, “but she’s got her heart set on becoming a neurosurgeon.”
The Good News
At the same time that New Canaan and Darien high schools are preparing students for examinations and for college, they’re also helping them deal with the stress brought on by so much testing and competition to get into the top schools.
In New Canaan, for example, federally mandated tests are given in classrooms rather than auditoriums; daily testing is limited and spaced over a period of days. In addition, students are allowed to wear baseball caps and are given breathing and calming tips. “Teachers work hard to reduce stress by making sure students feel confident and capable,” says Dr. Kolek. “Instead of treating testing as a high-stakes event, we emphasize that this is just one more opportunity for students to show what they can do.”
Guidance counselors meet one-on-one with freshmen and seniors at the beginning of the year, and with juniors and their families around planning for college. And three years ago, in an effort to balance academics with artistic performance, New Canaan hired Alan Sneath, a former director of elementary programs at Carnegie Hall, as full-time director of the performing arts.
More significantly, some students are taking themselves off the fast track. “Each year some kids get to a point where they say, ‘These are the scores I got, this is the GPA I have, this is who
I am,’” says New Canaan guidance counselor Cindi Rivera.
In the process these students are sending a message about what they value and how they want to live. “People in the community have to realize that how well you do in life is a product of what you do yourself way more than a product of the university you go to,” Nils Remole says. “I was looking at schools based on prestige more than if they fit me well. Now I don’t think a top-level school would have fit me, because the amount of work I’d have to do would have distracted me from other things — I love my extracurricular activities. It’s not the school, it’s what you do there.”
On the up side, despite the pressures and stresses, students acknowledge that all the testing in elementary school and the first few years of high school do, in fact, prepare them for the bigger tests — the SATs and ACTs — that are prerequisites for college. “You definitely learn how to take a test,” Claudia Powell acknowledges. “I mean, I don’t think I could have just gone into the SATs and really known what to do. We take tests for a reason.”