T.S. Eliot posited that “April is the cruelest month.” But Eliot was never a high school student in the throes of exam season.
I’ll see Eliot’s lilacs, dull roots and spring rain of April and raise him the practice SATs, AP exams and finals of May that my high-schoolers have endured in the last month.
Let me be clear: I am not normally a terribly sympathetic parent. My 16-year-old twin sons have heard the following — repeatedly:
●“If you’re doing the work day in and day out, you’ll do fine on the test.”
● “So what if your teachers are giving you lots of papers and tests this month? Once you get through this, you’ve got three months off.”
●And the always popular, “These tests are a real opportunity; I got a scholarship based on my PSAT scores.”
But after my sons took a practice SAT at the beginning of this month and then sat for the nearly four-hour U.S. history Advanced Placement exam, I became painfully aware that the tests of my high-school days are but pale imitations of what kids today are taking.
Thirty years ago we thought these tests would determine our future; today they actually do.
Back in September, one of my sons came home from his AP U.S. history class and said: “My teacher said that if we do well on the exam at the end of the year we can save our parents thousands of dollars.”
The pressures are more than financial. Students are told over and over that their futures hinge on how they fare on these tests. There’s a good reason for the message, says Colin Gruenwald, director of SAT and ACT test preparation for Kaplan, which is owned by The Washington Post Co.
“The number of students applying to colleges is going up,” Gruenwald told me recently. That coupled with the fact that “the average American adult will have three career-track positions goes to prove that the world is a very different place in terms of what you are going to do” than ever before.
And it’s not just high-schoolers who are bombarded with the message. Elementary and middle school students take standardized tests that help dictate class placement, take tests to gain admission to magnet programs or charter schools, take entrance exams to get into private high schools.
The message is simple: Do well. Your future depends on it.
Is it fair to put this much pressure on kids? How much do these tests really say about the kids who take them?
“Good tests are worthwhile when they can tell you something about the kind of student who is taking the test,” Gruenwald says. In a well-designed test “the question is less about what you know than about how you think.”
What about the really bright kid who freezes up on exam day, who is the quintessential “poor test-taker”?
There’s no doubt that these big, important tests “reward students who don’t buckle under pressure, who think flexibly,” Gruenwald says. “They reward the student who — when confronted with a reading they’ve never seen before — can step back and analyze it.”
But, he says, there aren’t really poor test-takers, just kids who haven’t yet figured out what is being tested.
“A student who doesn’t understand that’s what the test is looking for will conclude ‘I’m a bad test-taker,’ and it becomes self-fulfilling prophecy.”
There are strategies to help kids eliminate variables that can hurt their performance on these important tests. Take practice tests, study over a span of time, but don’t cram. Even the old chestnuts of eat a good breakfast and arrive early have merit.
But I still think what is asked of them is disproportionately unfair, and I wonder how I (or any parent) would do in their shoes. So when I picked my sons up after their practice SAT, I asked what the essay question was (because there was no essay portion of the SAT when I took it). They handed me their test booklet so I could see the question:
“Think carefully about the issue presented in the assignment below:
Does human progress depend upon a respect and appreciation for nature? Plan and write an essay in which you develop your point of view on this issue. Support your position with reasoning and examples taken from your reading, studies, experiences or observations.”
I could almost hear the proctor intoning: “You have 25 minutes; your future depends on your answer. Begin.”
No doubt about it, May is the cruelest month.