THR Blog   /   November 17, 2015

Dispatches from Today’s Youth Culture: Academic Pressure

Guest Blogger

freaks geeks cool kidsFrom 1997–99—just before social media erupted on the scene—I studied American teenagers and reported the results in Freaks, Geeks, and Cool Kids (2004). Fifteen years later, I did a follow-up study to see what changes have occurred in teenage culture. I will highlight some of the findings and their implications in a series of short essays. The first and second essays focused on how the new technology and media affect the social visibility of students and reshaped teen culture. This essay focuses in new levels of academic pressure and some of their consequences.

You can read all the essays in this series here.

During the 1997–99 fieldwork, students said relatively little about grades, quizzes, exams, homework, and academic pressure. Of course, many students worked hard and cared about their grades, but these concerns were certainly were not central to conversations at lunch. For many groups it was bad form to say too much about your academic work. While on occasion students studied and did homework during their lunch period this was the exception rather than the rule.

As one young woman, a college student in a quite selective university, said at the time, “Bad grades and fights with my mother were nowhere near as traumatizing as not being included in some social activity.”

The majority of students no longer show such nonchalance about their grades. Here are some examples from our 2013–14 fieldnotes at Wilson High School:

  • Seven white females, one African American female (mixed race), and one white male. All ninth grade. Kelly and Sabrina had been finishing a math exam so they were late to lunch. When Amber, Kelly, and Sabrina joined the table they all immediately take out classwork and start studying.
  • Three white females, one Asian female. Eleventh grade. Upper middle class. Samantha had an AP US history review book out on the table and began leafing through it; Jenna observed that Samantha’s class was using a different book than her class was. Samantha told her that she had bought this book as an additional study aid at Barnes & Noble.
  • Five white females (one may have been mixed race Asian). One male. Middle/upper-middle class. When I arrived at the table Chad was quizzing Luke on a music score and Theresa, Danielle, and Holly were talking about a chemistry quiz they had to take that day.
  • Eleven white females. Ninth grade. Upper middle class. Monica, Kathryn, and Allison were doing homework at the table, and left the table about five minutes into lunch to go to the library and study. Natalie was also working on her Spanish homework during lunch, but she continued to do her work at the lunch table instead of going to the library with the other girls.

These fieldnotes were made shortly after one grading period ended and over a month before the end of the next grading period—so the great concern with grades is not because exams are eminent. In short, compared to 1997–1999, our 2013–14 data show a significant increase in both the number of students concerned about their grade and the intensity of the pressure they feel.

Unsurprisingly, being “smart” became a source of status and snobbery. A girl from a high status public school in the Washington DC area reports, “Those outside of the AP class … were looked down upon for taking the easy ‘joke’ classes or simply not being smart.…”

There are multiple sources of such pressure starting with parents: “Ella said that her dad had yelled at her ‘for like a half an hour’ after her last biology test because she got an 89. Kaylee chimed in she was ‘so bad’ at Spanish because she had a 90 in the class.”

Another factor was the continuing recession and a poor job market. High rates of unemployment continued through the end of our fieldwork in the spring of 2014. This reduced the inclination to drop out or to enter the job market with a poor academic record. Even fast-food employers such as McDonald’s require you to indicate the level of schooling you attended, whether you graduated, your degree or course, and your grade point average—and claim that they will assist you in getting additional education.

It is less clear whether, on average, it is harder to get into college today, but many students certainly think it is. It’s true that a smaller percentage of the applicants are admitted to very selective schools than in the past, but this is in part because standardized application forms, available online, mean most people apply to more colleges than they did in the past.

Another source of pressure is increased enrollments in Advance Placement courses. According the College Board at the end of May in 2013, “… more than 18,000 high schools completed over four million college-level AP® Exams in 34 subject areas ranging from math and science to history and world languages.” If you want to get into a good college, you will probably require good grades in some AP courses. Last, but not least, are standardized exams and related Standards of Learning or SOLs. There is heated debate over the usefulness of such exams, but it is clear many students feel pressured to study for these exams.

These tests lower student morale and make them more cynical about the educational process. Most students recognize that there is a legitimate role for testing and grades: “[Rachel] said she understands that adults need to be able to see what students are learning, but the current testing regime isn’t working.” Of the fourteen students we formally interviewed only one had anything good to say about the usefulness of SOL examinations; most were quite negative. Here are a few of the typical responses:

  • As a ninth grader, Matt … said most of his classes were oriented towards covering only the information on the SOLs, and he thought it made the classes worse because the teachers could not teach what they thought was interesting about the subject.
  • [Jessica] said she knows they cause other students stress, but not her because she’s “responsible and pro-active” about her school work…. “I get done what needs to be done in advance…. [but she said] the SOLs especially are useless.”
  • [Brian] said he personally doesn’t feel much pressure … because he’s exceptionally good at taking standardized tests. But, he enthusiastically added that “SOLs are bad and need to die in a fire.…” [Teachers] end up teaching to the test and aren’t as passionate about the material.

Of course, students’ comments are not unbiased. Most people are anxious about, or suspicious of, the procedures that are used to evaluate them. Nonetheless it is troubling how negative most students are about SOLs and the deep skepticism that even good students express about their usefulness of this kind of pressure.

This narrowing and measuring of performance is not limited to students. There is pressure to measure teachers by how well their students perform on the tests, and schools and administrators on their ability to improve these scores. Nor is the trend limited to education. Many firms are instituting computerized “enterprise systems.” These do such things as count the number of inquiries a call center operator fields and how long they spend on each call, the number of packages a warehouse worker ships per day, or the number of “successful” and “unsuccessful” operations a surgery team completes per month.

Some benefits may come from these various measurement systems. There’s a long line of research that shows when people are evaluated and rewarded on the basis of narrowly measured indicators, the result is often “goal displacement.” They do what they can—including cheating—to improve their scores on what is measured and tend to neglect broader, more difficult-to-measure goals. It is certainly possible that this is what we are training our young people to do.

Murray Milner, Jr. is Professor Emeritus of Sociology and Senior Fellow at IASC. His most recent books are Elites: A General Model (2015), and Freaks, Geeks, and Cool Kids: Teenagers is an Era of Consumerism, Standardized Tests, and Social Media, 2nd Edition (2015) from which this essay is drawn.