Ready, set, test!

It might be time for us all to just calm down about the SAT. Earlier this month, students all over the country—1.5 million of them take the test each year—trundled off to testing centers armed with their calculators and number 2 pencils. The March test date is, of course, too late for graduating seniors, who’ve all already received the college acceptances—and rejection. This month, then, is mostly for practice: for the juniors and maybe even sophomores who want to get an early indication of their strengths and weaknesses.

The test, of course, likely won’t demonstrate the takers’ actual academic strengths and weaknesses, just as prepping for the test won’t actually make them smarter or more academically prepared for college. Instead, it will simply make them more adept at taking the SAT.

sat_study_guide-175The College Board, who owns the test, has acknowledged the issue. President of the College Board David Coleman recently acknowledged to the New York Times that 80 percent of high school teachers don’t think the test accurately measures a student’s abilities. As a result of this and other issues with the test—namely the billion-dollar test prep industry that offers an advantage to wealthy students—the College Board has announced that it will be making changes to the test.

perfect_score_cover-175Debbie Stier’s new book, The Perfect Score Project: Uncovering the Secrets of the SAT (Harmony, February) illustrates just how necessary these changes are. Driven to motivate her apathetic teenaged son into studying more for the SAT, Stier embarks on a year of test-taking, vowing to try out the multitude of available test prep options (ostensibly to figure out which one her son should use) and eventually earn herself a perfect score.

The book is a memoir within the growing tradition of year-long projects, in which the author embarks upon an experiment of some kind and writes about the results. It is also something of test prep manual itself, offering a variety of tips to readers on succeeding on the SAT.

Just so you know, chocolate (70% dark), a sliced apple, water, and Listerine strips are the best test snacks.

This aspect is a bit bizarre, as it’s hard to imagine high school seniors being interested in reading the book. The tips, then, are obviously for adults, suggesting an entire market of over-anxious parents who have added the college admission process to the long list of tasks they must complete for their children.

dark-chocolate-200I know these parents. I used to tutor their children. I taught the kinds of tricks Stier learns during her year of extreme test prep: memorize stock examples that you can shoehorn into any essay; ditto a list of impressive vocabulary words.

“It doesn’t matter what the essay is about. You can always find a place to work in the word ‘verisimilitude,’” I’d tell my students.

The new test, according to the Times, will focus on “reinforcing the skills and evidence-based thinking that students should be learning in high school, and moving away from a need for test-taking tricks and strategies.” Test prep companies nonetheless remain confident that there will be a need for their services. And there will be, unless parents all agree to trust that what their children have learned in high school is actually enough to get them into college.

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