As a Christian high school social studies teacher with 26 years of experience, I have witnessed notable changes in the stress and anxiety levels of teenagers and have wondered why pressures on students are distinctly higher than in my generation. While pursuing a master’s degree in education from Dordt University, I chose to focus my thesis on studying high school students’ perceptions and experiences with academic stress and honors/advanced courses at Eastern Christian School. I would like to share what research studies at the national level have revealed about this issue and offer some insights on how EC is responding to these concerns, as we strive to approach this from a holistic Christian worldview.
A primary mission for all schools is to train and equip students for academic and personal achievement, offering students a wide variety of curricular programs in pursuit of those goals. In preparing 21st century students for their future, many American high schools, including EC, have focused their curriculum on “college readiness.” Academic excellence is a worthy goal for students, and schools need to be challenging all students to achieve, based on their unique abilities and skills. However, it is also important to realize that academic pressures have intensified for many students as American high schools have increased their Advanced Placement and dual-credit course offerings.
In the United States, more high school students than ever before are taking college-level and advanced/honors courses. The academic achievement race for advanced/honors high school students is continuing to escalate, with the ultimate prize as admission to a top-tier college or university. Financial concerns may be one reason why parents and schools push their students to take college-level advanced courses. As college tuition costs in the United States have skyrocketed in recent decades, there may be increasing academic pressure for students to work harder in high school to achieve opportunities for scholarships and to earn college credits (Digby, 2016, p. 31).
The immense growth of AP and dual-credit curricular programs has sparked serious discussion and examination of students’ stress and anxiety levels. While some academic stress is healthy for young people’s cognitive development, high levels of stress and anxiety for students can be detrimental to adolescents’ physiological and psychological well-being. The American Psychological Association’s Stress in America survey in 2014 revealed that teens’ stress levels during the school year far exceeded what students believed to be healthy and were consistent with adults’ average stress levels. Furthermore, teenagers reported that school was their main stressor, along with concerns about getting into a good college/university and deciding what to do after high school. These findings are concerning to high schools and parents alike, as teenagers reported academic-related issues as significant and unhealthy causes of stress (APA, 2014).
The culture of American high schools has been described by experts as a “pressure cooker,” one in which advanced/honors students typically experience excessive workloads, crammed class schedules, and increased academic competition with peers. Indeed, the norm for advanced/honors students includes increased and potentially detrimental anxiety and stress levels. In pursuit of the all-important GPA, class rank, and test scores, high school students, along with parents, teachers, and administrators, have reoriented the priorities for schools to demonstrate academic rigor and success.
The surveys and interviews I conducted with EC high schoolers revealed similar findings to research studies across the United States. While EC students reported increased academic pressures for high performance, they also noted that their ambitions to attend a prestigious college/university were a major driver for their stress.
Eastern Christian continues to critically examine its goals and purposes for advanced/honors classes as part of the overall mission of the school. In addition, we have added to our academic and college counseling staff at the high school, providing increased support and mentoring services for all of our students. We are very cognizant of students’ social-emotional health and believe this is an important part of preparing young people for service in Christ’s kingdom.
In a modern society that is incredibly competitive and demanding, we continually strive to meet the unique learning needs of all students, including our advanced students. Our distinctive learning climate honors the diverse and multifaceted gifts of our students while also affirming them as image bearers of God.
This research study has changed my perspective on not only the students whom I teach, but also the potential harms that American high school academic culture has had on millions of high-achieving students. I can assure you that my colleagues and I continue to push for a reorienting of high school culture that includes healthy challenge, pushing aside excessive and unhealthy expectations for academic perfection. Striving for excellence should not just be equated with good grades and high test scores; excellence in Christian school education must take a holistic approach that focuses students’ hearts and minds to the sovereignty of God over all aspects of His creation. Eastern Christian strives to educate young people with purpose, who are goal-driven to serve and love God and their neighbors and transform the world for Christ’s ultimate glory.