For Asian Americans, standardized testing is its own costly, hyper-competitive culture

When a test is more than just a test.
When a test is more than just a test.
Image: Eric E Castro/Flickr
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Over the weekend, 16-year-old Mira Hu went missing in San Marino, California. Hu—a student at San Marino High School—had been dropped off at nearby Arcadia High School on Saturday to take the SAT college entrance exam. However, when her parents arrived to pick her up, Hu was nowhere to be found: hours later, she sent a text message to her brother that said Hu was running away due to the pressure of her SAT exam performance and the college admissions process. (Thankfully, she turned up unharmed, police reported on Tuesday.)

Hu’s distraught father told KTLA-TV that his daughter is “a perfect kid.” Yet, perhaps it is precisely this pressure to be “a perfect kid” that could be causing anxiety for students like Mira Hu.

As the debate over college admissions reaches new heights in the Asian American community—Emil Guillermo of Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund rightfully labels it the new Asian American civil war—the question of whether colleges should use a more holistic review process or base admissions decisions primarily or exclusively on high-stakes college entrance exams.

The inadequacies of the SATs in predicting college success has been well-discussed. There has been less time spent, however, on the psychological impact of such high-stakes testing: the extreme pressure it places on high school and college students,.

It is well-known among mental health researchers that teenagers and young adults are are at a high risk for anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts. Roughly one in three college students experience depression symptoms so severe they impact daily functions. Meanwhile, anxiety levels among high-school students continue to worry mental health advocates.

A major contributor to this anxiety is the college admissions process, which for many students becomes a veritable horse race of intensive testing. While societal inequity allows some students to fall completely through the cracks, other students are inundated with the message that every aspect of their lives should be focused on getting into a prestigious college.

For some Asian American children, the pressure to attend a selective four-year university can hit extreme heights. In an op-ed published CNN last year, Jeff Yang writes:

It’s a common running joke among second-generation Asian Americans that our parents start us on college prep before we begin potty training. The joke didn’t seem so funny to me when I was a kid, however. I remember earning minutes of TV by defining vocabulary words correctly—while I was still in fourth grade. I remember being rewarded for finishing homework early by getting extra “mommy homework,” which always involved problem sets and practice exams from a dog-eared stack of Princeton Review test prep tomes.

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that even within the already high rates of anxiety among the nation’s college students, Asian Americans, especially women, experience relatively high rates of anxiety and suicidal ideation.

Students are told that every waking minute should be dedicated to building their college application package, with an extreme priority placed on studying for standardized exams like the SATs. An entire economy exists within (middle class and wealthy) Asian American communities providing for the intense grooming of prospective applicants. Some families reportedly pay thousands of dollars for college preparatory programs that micromanage every aspect of a child’s life.

Failure is not an option. In their new book, The Asian American Achievement Paradox, sociologists Jennifer Lee and Min Zhou have documented how our community’s emphasis on high achievement—our “success frame”—can place significant stress on Asian American children. In short, our children are told that their entire self-worth is dependent upon getting into a school like Harvard, and that if they perform below expectations on a single exam, they are total failures. How can we not be concerned about the psychological toll that kind of pressure will have?

Arcadia police have said that Mira Hu fled to northern or central California from San Marino. Interestingly, northern California’s Gunn High School in Palo Alto is currently in the midst of its own crisis: over the past academic year, several students at this highly competitive high school have committed suicide. The vast majority were Asian American.

Students at Gunn High told San Francisco magazine stories of intense internal pressure and competition. “I feel like I’m never doing enough, not using my time wisely, not working hard enough,” Ryeri Lim, a junior originally from Korea, said. “It goes deep, this disappointment in ourselves.”

When I run my own workshops on Asian American mental health among college students, similar anxieties are frequently expressed, coupled with a failure within our community to openly discuss this stress. As Matt Richtel writes for The New York Times:

In addition to whatever overt pressure students feel to succeed, that culture [of Silicon Valley’s focus on needing to be the best to succeed] is intensified by something more insidious: a kind of doublespeak from parents and administrators.

It is time, perhaps, for us to take a good, hard look at the undue emphasis our community places on college prestige and admissions. What does it mean for our community when we focus so much of our energies on getting our children into Harvard, as if a Harvard offer letter was the defining metric by which we measure our kids’ merit and success?

And then there are the kids who don’t want to go to Harvard, the kids who are bright and intellectually gifted, but who simply don’t perform well on standardized exams, the kids who do push themselves to the limit and end up with a strong SAT score and an offer to a selective college, only to discover that the personal happiness we promised would come to them with these achievements never materializes.

We spend almost no time thinking about the high cost of this hyper-competitive culture of high-stakes performance on college entrance exams on our children. We spend almost no time thinking about the kind of pressures we place on our kids when we define success so narrowly that they no longer have the space to simply explore and to discover themselves, and even to occasionally stumble while doing so.

When we tell our kids that they must be “perfect,” we don’t give them the space to just be human. Instead, we need to take a step back and realize our kids are trying to tell us something about how it feels to be trapped in our suffocatingly narrow and rigid “success frame.”

Why aren’t we listening to them?