Two of my daughters, two of my play-sons, and one of my play-daughters took the SAT this morning.
So, for the past, oh, I don’t know how long, I’ve had some practice booklets lounging about my desk. Last night I flipped through one of the booklets and started trying some of the problems. I don’t know why I did that, either, for the Test-sellers say that students should not try a practice exam the night before in order not to “increase your anxiety,” and I had no intention of suggesting to the kids that they disobey the Test-sellers. I guess I just couldn’t help myself.
Tests have been a constant phantom in my home life this year, a truly uninvited guest. My teen daughters have been studying for the SAT for some months, or, at least, they’ve been checking out study guides from the library. I’m pretty sure my daughter who is learning English has been studying; I’m not so sure about Ms. I Hate Math But I Love to Read All Day So I Should Be Fine. I’ve neither encouraged nor discouraged the studying, for I wanted them to do whatever seemed to help them feel more confident, less jacked-up by the Tests.
More so, Tests are part of my everyday discourse because my nine-year-old, who has cognitive challenges and an IEP, hears about them constantly at her elementary school and in her fourth-grade class. For the past week, Nikki has been telling me that she has to go to bed early and get a good breakfast. “Can I have Cheerios, Mom?” The CRCT isn’t for another six weeks, but her classroom has been given over to practice tests, study guides, and primordial cheerleading chants that seem to have wafted in from the 1940s, something along the lines of “You can win, Winsockie, if you only buckle down!”
Nikki is in the fourth grade only because her teachers and I think it’s a good thing for her to have the social contact with kids her age in a “typical learners” classroom; she’s closer to kindergarten in emotional “development” and “conceptual comprehension.” Some days I wonder about the social contact thing, especially because she is one of twenty-seven, plus one harried but dear teacher who is drowning in the swamp of test-prep. A few of the kids are so sweet and they look out for Nik, helping her get the right book out of her desk or find her lunch box; others make her their punching bag, literally and figuratively—aw, man, you’re as dumb as Nikki… She has no friends. The one time I made a play date for her, at the request of the “friend” and Nikki, the little girl tried to hide under the bus seat so she wouldn’t have to get off at our bus stop with Nikki. I think she was ashamed to be seen as Nikki’s friend. As the bus pulled away, Nikki screamed into sobs, and I just held her forever on the sidewalk.
A few months ago, there was a week when every day when I met her at the bus stop, she was glum and sour as a green dewberry. She just wanted to come home and crawl into bed, so I let her. On Thursday morning, she told me, “Those tests make my head hurt.”
I hadn’t received or heard anything about test days. “Is your class practicing for the tests?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she said. “Worksheets. They make my head hurt.”
Normally, Nikki seems to like the worksheet type homework that the teacher sends home, even if she hasn’t a clue about fractions and decimals and the 192 math skills expected of fourth graders. [“On the last day of school, the first student will receive 53 blue pens, the second student will receive 62 blue pens, the third student will receive 71 blue pens, the fourth student will receive 80 blue pens, and the fifth student will receive 89 blue pens. If this pattern continues, how many blue pens will the sixth student receive?” Correct answer: What the hell do these kids need all these pens for? …http://www.ixl.com/math/grade/fourth/.] Nikki hasn’t even made it to understanding the “tens column.” And she still has trouble counting in a one-to-one correspondence fashion. I think she just likes doing homework because the actions match those of her “normal,” “typical learner” peers, and everyone has homework.
I’m reminded of a kid I met about forty-some-odd years ago. I was a teenager, maybe sixteen or so, and I worked a couple of weeks at a camp for kids with profound physical and mental challenges. The camp was aimed for elementary aged kids, but this was 1969, and there weren’t many choices for kids with disabilities, especially teens. One of the campers was about my age, a girl with severe cerebral palsy. Elizabeth. Walking or talking was formidable and grueling, and her body was misshapen into contortion hell, but she had a ubiquitous smile and was gently grateful for any small assistance I offered. The camp had planned an art project of making and decorating paper hats for some concocted holiday, and Elizabeth had dutifully followed the project instructions, resulting in a paper hat listing goofily on her head.
“I feel silly,” she said to me in a kind of teenager confidence. “But I just don’t want to be different.”
Whenever Nik wants to plod through the incomprehensible homework worksheets, I go along for the ride.
Last night, as I was busily trying to unravel the thinking of Test-makers in matters, such as just how nuanced they expect Test-takers to be in determining “the correct” prepositional expression, Chau, my Vietnamese daughter, knocked on my door. “Do you think these pencils will be okay?” she asked. She had two mechanical pencils in her hand. The SAT instructions warned against bringing mechanical pencils. (Say, what? Why? Is ETS afraid that some geniuses will have figured out how to plant tiny cell phones in mechanical pencils? And if a kid is that smart, why does he/she need the SAT? Let me re-phrase that: why does any kid need the SAT? But I digress.) I gave her the SAT orders and some Number Twos with good erasers, and she was off.
Chau had done what the SAT makers say not to do; that is, she took a practice test by herself this week. She was depressed because of her scores, all of which were below average. Chau came to this country from Vietnam all by herself at age fourteen because she received a full tuition scholarship and partial room/board scholarship at a barter-oriented, low-rent, private school in Atlanta. She knew no English, but she and her mother believed that a U.S. education would be the best chance a Vietnamese girl has at having a life. She’s a brave kid and a smart one, and her English skills have crossed the desert and back, especially since she joined our little family when finances became an issue for her family back in Vietnam. She studies constantly, loves the thrift stores where we get all our clothing, and reads online the Vietnamese counterpart of Seventeen. And she dreams of college, for which she’ll definitely need scholarship funds. She knows that most colleges still care about SAT scores.
But how in the world will she be able to prove her intelligence, dedication, and promise when tests of “writing” ask her to choose between phrases, such as “composing one original work” and “one original composition”? Like most English language learners, she has trouble with prepositions, articles, and various verb tenses, and the nuances of our mongrel language will take years to gather. So…remind me, again…how is it that this SAT will help her or colleges in nurturing our leaders and citizens?
I took the writing part of the practice booklet because I was curious. Mind you, I’ve been teaching first-year college composition for a quarter century plus change, so I would have expected that I would make no errors, but out of thirty-five questions, I missed three. One was a dumb oversight, but the other two were very nuanced interpretations of prepositional use. I remember thinking as I approached these two problems, “Well, this construction wouldn’t be my first choice, but it’s technically correct.” Wrong answer.
Even if we assume that the Tests really do follow the first law of medicine to first, do no harm (and that assumption is quite a stretch for these bubble tests), I keep asking myself what their potential “good” might be. Decades of independent research have shown that the Tests don’t predict success in college or in careers. They don’t show us what students have learned. They don’t show us what students are capable of doing. Beginning eighty-five years ago, these Tests arose from an effort to “conclusively demonstrate” the superiority of the Caucasian brain and the inferiority of the African brain (Fish). As Stanley Fish further notes, “In short, what is being measured by the SAT is not absolutes like native ability and merit but accidents like birth, social position, access to libraries, and the opportunity to take vacations or to take SAT prep courses.” So…why is it we’re doing these tests? Again…can someone tell me?
I remember the story of the son of two of my dearest friends in St. Louis. The kid was and is clearly genius material, but he never could come close to passing any of the standardized tests. The public schools were recommending special ed for him. The problem was that he would always get so enchanted with spinning webs of possibilities for each of the multiple-choice answers to be the correct one that he never got past the first twenty percent or so of the questions. He could easily psych out the Test-makers to know what silly answer they expected, and his parents tried to get him to do so, but the truth was that he enjoyed creating these perfectly reasonable and legitimate logical constructions. He was so much more brilliant than the Test-makers that he needed an IEP. Fortunately for him, my friends were able to take him out of public school. Most geniuses aren’t so fortunate.
Last night, as I pored over finding possible solution sets for x and y in various quadratic equations, Rocio, my tenth-grader, kept interrupting to sharpen pencils, check on her SAT Admission Ticket, borrow my cell phone, and make mall plans with her BFFs, Maunglwin and Khojasta. It’s true that my profession and passion are with my beloved Department of English, but I’ve always adored math. Though I've never actually used any math concepts introduced after about fourth grade, I think math is fun and whimsical and even…beautiful. I was one of the lucky kids who happened to “test well,” and my math scores always made me appear to be much smarter than I am. Anyway, at one point, Ro came in as I was grousing over the lack of clarity over a word’s meaning in a particular problem—does “greatest” mean the greatest distance from zero or the greatest in terms of positive numbers?—and I snarled and sniped over the lousy and narrow thinking of such tests, regaling her with my complaints over the test items on the “writing” portion, too.
“God, Mom,” she said, laughing at me. “Give it a rest.”
“I know; I know,” I said. “These Tests just bother me. Did I ever tell you about the son of my friends in St. Louis?”
“Several times, so far,” she rolled her eyes. “Why are you even messing with the practice test? Especially math?”
“Because it’s fun!” I said. “I love math and trying to figure out…”
She paused and stared at me for a meaningful, bemused moment. “Mom,” she said quietly as she turned to leave, “you are so not right.”**
And at long last, Ro gave me the answer, a reason to take such a Test. We should take Tests like the SAT-CRCT-GRE-ACT-ITBS if—and only if—it’s fun.
Fish, Stanley. Reverse Racism, Or How the Pot got to Call the Kettle Black." Atlantic Monthly (November 1993): n. pag. Web. http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1993/11/ reverse-racism-or-how-the-pot-got-to-call-the-kettle-black/304638/.
** In the south, “not right” means one is slightly insane, but not necessarily dangerously so.
Cindy Lutenbacher, Ph.D., is a professor of English at Morehouse College.