Sunday, August 7, 2011

The last SAT

I do not heart the SAT. It’s making me fight with myself and before it’s over, it will make Sam think bad words about me, even if those words are five years long.

It’s not because I’m tired of nagging Sam to do his SAT homework when he’d rather be at Frankie’s house. It’s not because it’s college application time in general, which is all about timelines and checklists. It’s not because we’re all getting nervous about what hinges on those three little categories: Math, Critical Reading and Writing.

I do not heart the SAT because for all its aim to gauge academic aptitude, it is a test of test-taking, with the power to rule out promising candidates even as it nets the highly qualified. 

Sam’s personal readiness to leave home has been his work in progress for seventeen years and his academic potential has been demonstrated. In five very short years, he'll be up there at the top of College Mountain with a little flag that says  "Thanks Mom and Dad" like his siblings were.  But on October 1, when he takes the last available SAT before the application deadline, he will be like every other bleary-eyed teenager sitting in a big room for four hours, tired, anxious, eventually hungry, pencil hovering over his choices, knowing what's at stake while he tries to recall if he loses or doesn’t lose points for blanks, and what to do if he runs out of time.  There's your test.

Most colleges – the ones who require high six or seven hundreds to begin with – claim to factor in, but not rely too heavily on SAT scores, though I imagine the pile of marginal candidates awaiting a “closer look” is pretty impressive. And many smart, qualified teenagers score well on the SAT, go to wonderful colleges, and become productive human beings. I raised three of them. But an ambitious quest has evolved among parents of college-bound teenagers to “crack the SAT code.” On coffee tables and kitchen counters throughout the land sits the three-inch Princeton Review which boasts from the cover: practice questions and explanations in every chapter!

I was never the parent who believed in prepping for the test, other than to make our kids take it a couple of times. Now I am the parent who has hired a tutor, is making her teenager use words like “Perspicacious” in a sentence, and is asking “have you signed up for word-of-the-day yet?” I am the parent I used to judge in not very understanding terms for their vicarious, or, that which is experienced or realized through imaginative or sympathetic participation in the experience of another, ambition. So, now, on top of everything else, my personal integrity will not take calls from my parental motives, even though they used to talk all the time and wear each other’s clothes.

Oh, if we could have type-appropriate versions of the SAT– aligned with the “person” category into which the test taker fits. Maybe name the SAT after famous humanitarians and billionaire philanthropists the way burgers are named after famous actors in diners: The Bill Gates SAT, the Warren Buffett ACT. For the ones who don’t have memories like vaults, but possess savvy and personality that are in the high seven hundreds, we could have the Ferris Bueller SAT.

Will he crack the code? Sure, he will. But I can’t shake the cognitive dissonance, or, an uncomfortable feeling caused by holding conflicting ideas simultaneously when I realize how I view, yet have bought into, the process of SAT prep.

So I do not heart the SAT, and I will be happy to see October 1 come and go. I will no longer start every sentence with “did you get a chance to,” and I will sit my personal integrity down in the same room as my parental motives, tell them to use their “I” statements and remember, during conflict, how they felt about each other when they first met.

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