Test Prep Insanity

Grand Rapids Junior College

Image by Steve Snodgrass via Flickr

My 15 year-old stepson told us that he recently took an SAT pre-test. At first this passed through my (overworked) mind as interesting but not critically important (in other words, I was present enough to hear it, acknowledge it and maybe make a quick comment, but felt no pressure to make room for it in the memory bank – my hard drive is almost full so I’m picky). After thinking about it some more, I realized that it didn’t make sense. Why is he testing to prepare for a test?

Don’t get me wrong – I know all about the importance of SAT and ACT scores in the college acceptance game. I guess the idea of giving them a feel for what the test mechanics will be like is not such a bad idea (do they still use Scantrons, #2 pencils and Blue Books?). It’s more the concept of over-preparing these kids for a test that has me scratching my head. I’m thinking it’s a mistake. Now before you overachieving mommies write a bunch of heavy-handed comments about how this score will affect our kids’ future and blah, blah, blah…hear me out.

Let’s explore a scenario…

My kid (hypothetical because I’m not going to discuss my actual kid for this one) is pretty smart. She has done well in school, making honor roll most of the time and getting great comments from her teachers (An aside? This says a lot more to me about their achievements than their letter grades because it tells me about their character). She has a lot of community service under her belt, plays varsity sports and has also held a part-time job, so her pre-college “resumé” is looking well-rounded. She doesn’t test well, however, and this has been a constant battle for her. She has diligently worked on her study skills, but if any aspect of her academics is deficient, it’s her test scores. Homework? Perfect. Class participation? Amazing. Projects? Stellar. Tests? She’s a low B girl on her best day.

SAT time approaches. She is getting nervous and has asked to take an SAT prep class. Surely she needs to be best prepared to do well on this test, I think, so we go ahead and put her through the class. She then proceeds to take a pre-test, which she bombs. This is disheartening, but not surprising due to her history of poor test taking ability. She (well, we) is (are) panicked, envisioning her future, which she believes – in her fragile state – will involve stocking inventory at Wal-Mart and attending JuCo part time for the next eight years. I can’t stand to see her this way (and secretly want her to get into a fancy college so I can brag about it to everyone and buy one of those collegiate hoodie bragshirts – I mean, sweatshirts), so we call in the big guns, consulting a Professional College Counselor and several SAT-specific tutors to tackle the budding crisis.

After six months of intensive study and counseling, our daughter sits for the SAT…and aces it! Her scores are amazing (facebook post-worthy…can I scan her test score letter as a JPEG?) and we celebrate that night at The Olive Garden.


Image via Wikipedia

She is accepted to her r-e-a-c-h school and we spend the summer planning her departure (and emptying our retirement savings). Off she goes to Brown (Harvard, Stanford, NYU) full of new found confidence and a thirst for rigorous academics.

Fast forward to Christmas break:  the phone rings. It’s the school administrative office. Our daughter has been placed on academic suspension because of her poor first semester grades. It’s not looking good for her to return without appealing to the board. She is devastated. Her confidence is shot. Our bank account is empty. Turns out that in fact the school was a reach for her after all. She couldn’t handle the rigors of her studies and…news flash…she bombed her mid-terms. My husband skulks out to the garage to scrape the Harvard (Stanford, Brown, NYU) sticker off the back of my car while I think back and try to figure out what went wrong.

Obviously I’ve over-dramatized this scenario for literary effect (or have I?), but isn’t test prep the academic equivalent of collagen lip filler? Did we not just artificially inflate my (hypothetical) daughter’s test-taking ability by putting her through this pre-testing prep process? I mean, I can’t do a round-off back handspring, but if I had a private coach showing me how for six months? I’d have the best ROBH you’ve ever seen. That doesn’t mean I should run and try out for the USA Olympic Gymnastics Team. Do you see where I’m going with this?

Why do we have to engage in these deceptions? Aren’t we setting our kids up to fail?

Let’s talk politics for a second:  The fact is, we all pay taxes or tuition (or both!) to send our kids to school. The educators are responsible for ensuring that our kids leave high school academically ready for college (we’re responsible for getting them ready emotionally, which is the whole purpose of my blog…I’m talking to you, helicopter moms…thwap thwap thwap). We all know that no one has confidence in the school system anymore, yet instead of getting really mad and doing something about it (ballot box, people…you Californians voted for JERRY BROWN again), we take on the job of supplementing their education at home. I would hypothesize that the reason parents believe they have to do all this test prep is because the school hasn’t actually planted the seeds of knowledge our kids need to pass the stupid test in the first place. In fact, they teach mostly to the state tests (for funding), so if your kid indeed has trouble taking tests like my (hypothetical) daughter, it’s double-ridiculous!

Instead of electing like-minded representatives to the school board and exercising our voting rights, however, we accept these educational deficiencies and focus on our own kid outside of school. We then artificially inflate their base of knowledge just so they can ace the SAT and then send them off to a college they aren’t really qualified to attend.

By doing this, we are buying in to the cultural pressure which says that our kids need to get into a ‘good’ college, not to mention avoiding the larger problems with our educational system. Is that the end game? If our kids don’t get into a ‘good’ college, is it all over for them? What’s a good college? Can you major in happiness, because isn’t life about finding happiness? What if our kids would be happy going to junior college? Can we accept this?

When-I-Was-A-Kid-Story-Alert:  When I was a kid, my school did not offer extra pre-test prep for SATs. There was no such thing as a Professional College Counselor back then (aside from the guidance counselor at our school who was also the wrestling coach). Aside from a couple days of instruction during our normal English and Math class, we were on our own. I attended Wayland High School (Massachusetts), which at the time was one of the top 10 high schools (academically) in the country. It was. You can look it up. Not the state, the country. We all did pretty well on our SATs, with very few exceptions. Now don’t quote me on this, but something like 97% of my graduating class was accepted to a four year college. Of the 97%, approximately 15% went Ivy League. The cool part? Their acceptance was based on their actual performance at school. I cannot remember any mommies nervously flitting around campus, meeting with teachers or otherwise trying to supplement their kid’s education. I never saw a flyer for a test prep class. We had two things going for us:  first, the quality of education was far superior to that which our kids are getting today, and second, we were on our own. It was merit-based. How do you like that? The school took responsibility for getting us ready. The slackers slacked, the achievers achieved. We had the tools and resources to be successful if we so chose to use them.

I think as parents we need to let this process unfold a little more organically for our kids. I’m with you that the quality of education is lacking these days, but you know what? It is what it is and in order to effect change, perhaps we need to go through a few waves of dumbed-down kids to get the attention of the folks in Washington. If you don’t like the quality of education your kids are getting, change schools. Move. Do what you need to do. But quit trying to manufacture an outcome at the 11th hour that won’t stick. They had 12 years to get ready for college. Six months of cramming won’t do them any good in the long run.

And yes, I would totally take my kid to The Olive Garden if she got into Stanford (Harvard, NYU, Brown). What? The breadsticks are amazing.

About oneburnedoutmama

Ever so slightly burned out mama. Love kids. Not so much on a few of the parents. Hate folding laundry. Love long stretches of silence. Prefer rain over sun and football over HGTV.
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2 Responses to Test Prep Insanity

  1. tmillion says:

    Well said and so true. Having a Junior at MC I can relate to this so well. This post is definately food for thought

  2. Pingback: Is SAT prep worthwhile? « Gas station without pumps

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