Implications of Academic Pressure

Illustrated by Valerie Larsen

Illustrated by Valerie Larsen

Maddie Coyle and Gwen Tucker

College Readiness

      “What do you want to be when you grow up?” It’s a simple, childhood question that many adults have asked me. I always had an answer: dog photographer, zookeeper or even an astronaut. I never thought much of this question; however, now that I am older  and frequently faced with this question at school, I realize some of the implications of it. By always asking what a kid wants to do when they are older, it puts a notion into their heads that they must know what they want to do with their lives. 

      This expectation that young people, even children, should know their life goals, even before they finish high school, is prevalent, especially at a Northshore school like ETHS. Now more than ever, I see how unhealthy this  culture is for me and some of my peers. At this time in our lives, we shouldn’t have to always focus on our future. Yet, students are often receiving messages around developing post-high school goals in classrooms and other school settings during our freshman year and taking career aptitude tests during our sophomore year. 

     I am not entirely sure what I want to do with my life, and I shouldn’t have to, but right now I feel this weight put on me to figure it out because of the emphasis that ETHS places on it. 

     ETHS often references its own school profile to its students and families, especially when freshmen begin their journey as part of the school community. This profile highlights multiple statistics on ETHS’ academic achievements: the number of students who took AP exams, the average SAT score, the average number of students earning National Merits and their beloved statistic of being in the top two percent of schools in the state. Many of my peers and I felt bombarded with this information.  

     “I can’t speak for everyone else, but from my personal experience, the constant talking about college and you need this much credits and that much credits and the constant talking about what you need, like picking out college and career stuff freshman year, stressed me out a lot,” says sophomore Chyna Pointer. 

     From a young age, teachers, parents, family and friends tell us to push through whatever we need to achieve our academic goals because it impacts our college and career readiness.

      “Teachers definitely pressurize students as they get older. They emphasize a lot how this can help prepare you for college,” says sophomore Jackie Okereke. “However, with that comes a lot of work that isn’t always paced out well. Then it becomes a burden on students because it becomes too much to handle.”

     ETHS, like many high schools, want to give their students the best opportunities for their post-high school lives. However, there is often a disconnect between what the school communicates and how some students handle this information , especially given the unique aspects of their personal lives and their varying levels of access to current and future educational opportunities. 

     “ETHS tries to persuade [students] to try and go to college, but it all depends on where you grow up and how you grew up and where you live and how that type of situation is,” says sophomore Shania Wright. “It’s kind of hard for people that can’t really strive to go to these colleges because of the money situation and finances.”

     While many teachers, parents and even students within the school fail to acknowledge that post-high school pressure creates an unhealthy culture for students, it is important to recognize those people who recognize and attempt to address these issues. 

     “It is important to first give individuals the space and encouragement to acknowledge that they are experiencing an unhealthy level of pressure. I feel that quite often when students are given an opportunity to simply talk through what they are feeling and discuss different possible options for addressing/managing their pressures, that that in itself helps an individual to take a step back and see ways of dealing with those issues through a new lens,”  says counselor Anitra Holloway-Nelson. 

     Even when people in the building acknowledge this pressure, it is also imperative to check when it seems like we are putting this pressure on ourselves. 

      “Secondly, I would have to say that it is important to encourage individuals to continuously look at how they are balancing the demands and commitments within their lives, especially how they are managing their time around those commitments,” says Holloway-Nelson. 

      Post high school readiness culture is an epidemic that has evolved throughout time. As our society has become more competitive, so has schooling. Yet, that doesn’t have to be the case. Not every student is ready for deeper discussions about post-high school plans because they are still trying to figure out high school; schools need to embrace that more. ETHS has taken steps to welcome students into different ways of learning and engaging in school through encouraging a range of electives, clubs and other community activities, but more work can be done to challenge the stressful culture around academic achievement for the sake of our transcripts and our chances for post-high school success.    

      We, the students, deserve a space that is more inclusive of different interests and ideas that do not always feed into our college and career readiness.

Standardized Testing

     Junior year. Tons of homework, endless questions about college, and of course, standardized testing, including the dreaded SAT that all juniors are required to take in the spring. A quarter into our junior year, my classmates and I have already attended two meetings with our counselors and have sat for three painful hours to take the PSAT. It is so easy to get caught up in the individualistic aspects of the SAT — your scores or the time you spend preparing — but there is really so much more than that. We so often fail to recognize that the disparities in resources for SAT preparation perpetuate socioeconomic inequality.

    I have my own struggles with how I should prepare for the SAT. On one hand, I can take advantage of my privilege because, to an extent, my family has the financial ability to allow me to have a tutor, take the test multiple times and buy test prep books. On the other hand, I can prepare on my own without these resources. By doing this, I am being conscious of those in my community who don’t have the same access that I do. But, am I then just being an idealist fighting against an unjust and unfair system, possibly sacrificing my own success, while not having created any tangible change?

    Although colleges originally began using the SAT to standardize college admissions procedures and increase access to higher education, it is completely impossible to do that now because not all students enter the testing environment in the same place. “Students who have resources benefit from the ability to hire private tutors, and to do Princeton Review or other SAT prep courses,” Civics and US History teacher Michael Pond said. 

    If students are able to purchase a test prep book, they will have access to many practice tests and helpful strategies that further their success. If they are able to take the test multiple times, they can become accustomed to the feeling and rhythm of the test, not to mention the fact that superscoring — where colleges consider a student’s highest section scores across all the dates they took the test and form a composite score — can positively impact their scores. If students can afford $100+ per hour tutoring, certain companies pledge to bring up their scores around 150 points. 

    Even if students who can afford it choose not to use their resources, they still have a different attitude towards the test as a whole. “I would be able to get a SAT or ACT tutor if I needed one. I have access to all of the resources that are out there, even though I don’t use all of them…I feel like I have a fallback plan.” junior Lucia Goldberg explained.

    According to data from the College Board — the organization that administers the SAT — there is an approximately 200 point score gap between test takers whose family income is over $200,000 vs. test takers whose family income is below $40,000. This is particularly relevant at ETHS as the levels of financial privilege vary dramatically, with almost 40 percent of students eligible for free and reduced lunch, meaning that they are considered low income. 

    A test score is not just a number, it is something that can have real implications in your life. With a high score, you have a higher likelihood of getting into a highly selective school. You are not inherently a smarter person if you go to a “better” school, but these institutions can open doors to opportunities, whether it be graduate school, an internship, or a job. Many employers only recruit at the “top” schools simply because they do not have the resources to travel everywhere. If only certain privileged students gain admission to these higher level institutions, they are the ones who get access to these opportunities, making it harder for less privileged students to achieve some level of social mobility.

    It’s not only the fault of individuals for buying into this system, it’s the fact that the system exists at all. It’s parts of our society that assess your value as a human being based on where you go to college, or if you choose to go to college at all. It’s the College Board, an organization that profits off of this culture, trying to make the tests more confusing because they make more money the more times you take it. It’s the test prep empires that charge hundreds of dollars per hour to convince you that you are nothing without their product. The system of standardized testing stretches far beyond just the actual test, and it only exaggerates pre existing inequality in our community. 

    With all of this being said, there are resources to help students succeed. Khan Academy offers free and specialized SAT Prep. Furthermore, students who are unable to pay to take the SAT can seek assistance from their school counselor in getting a test fee waiver. Most importantly, while most colleges and universities require the SAT (or ACT), many schools have made the switch to become test optional, meaning they no longer require test scores in admissions but rather focus on the individual “When I was in high school,” Pond remarked, “standardized testing had a bigger impact on where you went to school than it does today. I know that there is still stress and importance on standardized testing, but there are a number of pretty elite schools that don’t even take standardized tests.” It is important that we recognize and promote these resources while still understanding that they are not the solutions to the problem, but are only putting Band-Aids on a broken system.