WHEN I WAS GROWING UP in the 1980s, my Dad — like many fathers at the time — wasn’t that engaged with my nightly homework assignments, nor did he keep on top of looming quizzes or due dates for papers. Most of those duties fell to my mother.
But one or two days a year, my father would set his alarm especially early. I would come downstairs the next morning to see him standing in his suit and tie and perfectly polished shoes beside the stove, with a pan full of scrambled eggs. This was our ritual on the days I would be taking those arduous “achievement” tests, when I would be stuck in a seat for hours, filling in answer bubbles with my No. 2 pencil. The brain needed extra energy for the ordeal, and a bowl of cereal and milk just wouldn’t cut it.
Personal test scores are what mattered most back then. No one thought much about whether a school was making yearly adequate progress or whether the teachers were doing their jobs.
Today, students routinely tackle a slew of standardized tests during regular classroom hours — including MCAS, PARCC, PSATs, and AP exams. Others — like the SAT and ACT pre-college exams — are offered outside of the school day. The sheer volume is overwhelming.
For years, criticism of the emphasis placed on testing has been rising. People from various ideological camps complain that they do not adequately judge a student’s academic knowledge and performance, that they are inherently biased toward certain groups, that teachers are forced to teach to the test instead of broadening academic horizons. In addition, many believe they put too much stress on young minds.
Those are all legitimate concerns. But has the backlash gone too far? Increasingly, parents are calling for their children to “opt out” of such aptitude testing. And when it comes to admission exams, there is a push for more colleges to follow those that already have gone test-optional, or to drop tests from the admissions process altogether.
I watch all of this from a fairly unique perspective. My children are not old enough to be in this scrum, but they will get there soon enough. For the past 10 years, however, I have tutored other people’s children for the SAT, an exam I believe represents pretty well a student’s knowledge of what they should be learning. It has faults — from the amount of time students have to take the test (not enough) to the imprecise nature and possible cultural biases of the reading sections — but the College Board has in recent years made significant strides in addressing them.
It bothers me when parents — and some teachers — criticize the SAT or PARCC or MCAS without truly understanding their purpose. Many people claim tests determine little more than whether someone is a good test taker.
I say they provide constructive challenges that, rather than paralyzing students, motivate many of them to learn. Believe me, they’re up to it. When I go through test preparation with 16- and 17-year-olds, I’m routinely impressed by their problem-solving abilities.
Unfortunately, the hysteria around the pressure of testing often affects students’ confidence. Even statements like “I hope you did better than I did” or “I am a horrible test taker” can wreak havoc on their mindset. They might ask themselves, “Am I a horrible test taker too? or, “Why am I working so hard to do well when everyone says it’s a waste of time?”
On May 2, about a million teenagers across the United States will take the latest round of SATs. I propose that for the week leading up to this “high-stakes” event, we suspend the testing debate and encourage our children to visualize exceeding their expectations. Instead of instilling doubts, let’s generate excitement. If pep rallies are good for football showdowns, why not organize one for the academic “big game?” Failing that, if you have a test taker in the house, wake up early May 2 and make them a good breakfast. Then, as you send them on their way, say, “Do your best. That’s all we ever expect of you.”
Scott Lajoie lives in Mashpee, where he is an SAT tutor.