Last week, my 17-year-0ld, Jordan, headed east to stay with my oldest son, Abe (28) and Kelly, my oldest son’s partner. Both Kelly and Abe are professors at University of Arizona. Both are highly capable, intelligent, and organized doctoral prodigies.
The task at hand for this reality show: help Jordan launch the Common App, the application many universities use for admittance. Also on their plate: begin the ACT Prep Course (live online) and AP Spanish summer work. They had 8 days to complete their mission. It was a tall order. The most challenging part for everybody, hands down, was starting the ACT course.
The reason we need ACT Prep is this. Times are not like they were when I took the SAT. My prep was walking into the room and sitting at the desk. Because I’m an overachiever, I brought FOUR No. 2 pencils. That got me into UCLA somehow. I don’t remember my scores, but I don’t think they were particularly impressive. Today, universities won’t even look at scores under a certain level. UCLA had the highest number of applications last year (206,000 applicants) battling for 6,000 positions. Despite top grades and well-rounded activities which show perseverance, low scores can block a student from the four year school they hope to attend.
Furthermore, we live in a small, rural area that doesn’t hold high expectations for students to go to a four year university. Because of that, the SAT/ACT gets little attention at the school or in the area. There are no good live prep classes. There are no “test taking skills” classes. This is a huge disadvantage to rural students and many get discouraged. They give up on school and college altogether. The most commonly taught strategy for college entrance exams is showing students how to avoid them by starting out at a junior college. The problem there is that many students fall into a black hole and never make it to the next step.
There are online “free” courses in some cases for standardized tests, but they aren’t user friendly and further frustrate many learners. After extensive research, and asking everybody I know, we finally landed a live online prep course that seemed good. Jordan would start the August sessions in Arizona and take the ACT in September.
Despite the task in front of him, and the future of his brother’s dreams in his hand, Abe managed to balance work and fun with precision. I remembered sitting down on Abe’s bedroom floor when he was in third grade, teaching him time management for 4 hours against his protests that this was not school work. (Side rant: in the education reform effort, can we please make this schoolwork and teach kids this life skill so they can be successful?) I felt so proud that Abe had learned his lessons so well over the years and was now able to help his brother learn this skill by modeling it. By the time Jordan came home, Abe handed over a detailed report of all that had been completed, along with an Excel spreadsheet of deadlines and dates. Computer folders were all set up for applications and scholarships. Jordan’s personal statement, which was so clearly all Jordan, had undergone several drafts. Just to reiterate: hands down, the hardest part of the week was the ACT prep.
After the arduous online weekend classes, homework was assigned. “ACT homework is hard!” was Abe’s text response. Luckily, Kelly had retained early math and was able to help navigate there. In the end, they decided prepping for standardized tests is exhausting. It’s not because Jordan doesn’t know the material because he does. The problem is figuring out what the standardized test maker is asking, and how said writer is construing the question. It’ not about intelligence, but rather about being able to get into the head of the question writer. The only place this skill is really relevant is on standardized tests, and one takes those probably less than five times in life. Is this clearinghouse really the best we can do?
When I was getting my Masters in Teaching the mantra was this: don’t teach to the test. That, they said, is very bad. Yet, when I was teaching second grade, and it was testing time, the school made a big deal about calling homes and telling the kids to eat breakfast (as if that’s not important the rest of the year.) They set the stress level up so high around standardized testing that 7 year olds would cry and throw up from parent/teacher pressure to perform. I did everything I could to lessen that pressure for the kids. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it didn’t. The experience throws the kids on the anxiety spectrum over the line. The whole swirl is counter to authentic learning.
After the tests are taken comes the next wave of dysfunction. If the student does poorly, she starts to think she’s dumb (and often so does her parents if they are not educated about the tests.) They lower expectations. In reality, the clearer measure of a student’s ability to succeed is so much wider in scope. It rests solidly in consistent classroom performance and ability to balance activities with schoolwork independently. Whether or not students get high standardized test scores should simply not be the gate that allows them to pass through to higher education.
On a school level, the administration used to use those scores to evaluate the teachers’ performances–a travesty. (I do hope this dinosaur has moved out, but somehow I doubt it.) Even people in the highest ranks of educational policy don’t seem to understand the problem with using these tests as accountability measures, probably because they don’t understand pinks and blues (so binary!) and how classrooms are set up.
The Ps & Bs process goes like this. At the end of each year, there is great discussion of how classes will be stacked the following year. A teacher’s strengths are looked at, as well as their weaknesses. If the teacher is more patient, they will get more special needs children. If the teacher is better with teaching advanced, outside-the-box thinking, they’ll get more “gifted” students. Everybody gets even boys and girls for the most part, and everybody gets a child with a reputation for being “challenging.” This was, at least, how it worked at the elementary school I taught at, which was one of the top 100 schools in the US.
Come spring, when the kids are tested, their scores reflect the general demographics of the class, and that’s really the luck of the draw despite the best efforts on pink and blue day. Every good teacher I’ve ever met dreads testing. It’s stressful for everybody. Because of the high stakes put on tests results, I’ve even known teachers who have erased student scores to make them higher so that their class totals would look better. That’s how much pressure the teachers feel because of the system structure. That pressure is in direct ratio to great teachers leaving the profession. You can see under this model that high scores DO NOT reflect better teaching, but only a ridiculous system that culminates later on in undergraduate/graduate exams, and professional entry exams.
Which brings us back to college entrance exams. Between my husband and I, and my son and his partner, we have over ten undergrad/grad degrees. Still, the ACT is hard! I find my stomach clenching over complicated percentage questions. As a team, we might be able to address every section on the test, but even for a very educated adult, it’s hard. The very good prep instructor (an Ivy League Mechanical Engineer) also found himself stumped on a science problem he was helping students navigate through. The specifics, like calculating a small arc on a circle, or exploring all archaic uses of the semicolon, are confusingly irrelevant and feel a lot like hazing to me.
And what about the more global concern? What happens to the kids that would be great college students, but don’t have a support team in their home? What about kids whose parents speak another language and haven’t gone through this gatekeeper? Should they be eliminated because we can’t figure out any other way to assess our students’ readiness?
I kept trying to look for the positive aspects of standardized testing, and other than the business side for the testing people or the ease for the universities in the admissions process to deal with high application pools, I couldn’t find the sunny side. Then, with the help of my oldest son/teacher, I saw it. In the thick of the ACT Prep, Abe texted, “I have a new respect for you as a parent and have solidified my desire to never do it!”
Standardized exams as birth control! I knew they were good for something.