Save us from the SAT
Photo Credit Matt Dorfman
By Jennifer Finney Boylan
BELGRADE LAKES, Me. — I WAS in trouble. The first few analogies were pretty straightforward — along the lines of “leopard is to spotted as zebra is to striped” — but now I was in the tall weeds of nuance. Kangaroo is to marsupial as the giant squid is to — I don’t know, maybe D) cephalopod? I looked up for a second at the back of the head of the girl in front of me. She had done this amazing thing with her hair, sort of like a French braid. I wondered if I could do that with my hair.
I daydreamed for a while, thinking about the architecture of braids. When I remembered that I was wasting precious time deep in the heart of the SAT, I swore quietly to myself. French braids weren’t going to get me into Wesleyan. Although, in the years since I took the test in the mid-’70s, I’ve sometimes wondered if knowing how to braid hair was actually of more practical use to me as an English major than the quadratic equation. But enough of that. Back to the analogies. Loquacious is to mordant as lachrymose is to … uh …
This was the moment I saw the terrible thing I had done, the SAT equivalent of the Hindenburg disaster. I’d accidentally skipped a line on my answer sheet, early in that section of the test. Every answer I’d chosen, each of those lines of graphite-filled bubbles, was off by one. I looked at the clock. Time was running out. I could see the Wesleyan campus fading before my eyes.
I began moving all my bubbles up one line, erasing the wrong answers. The eraser on my No. 2 pencil hadn’t been at full strength when I’d started, and now I was nearly down to the metal.
Then there was a ripping sound.
I picked up the answer sheet. Through the gaping hole in the middle of it, I could see the hair of the girl in front of me.
That braid really was a remarkable thing.
I remembered this sequence, like something from a Hitchcock film, when the College Board announced this week that it was rolling out a complete do-over of the SAT. Starting in 2016, gone will be the tristful effect of arcane vocabulary words such as “tristful” and “arcane”; gone will be the penalty for guessing wrong instead of leaving the answer blank; and gone will be the short-lived mandatory essay section, a test that reportedly places a higher value on loquaciousness than logic.
All in all, the changes are intended to make SAT scores more accurately mirror the grades a student gets in school.
The thing is, though, there already is something that accurately mirrors the grades a student gets in school. Namely: the grades a student gets in school. A better way of revising the SAT, from what I can see, would be to do away with it once and for all.
The SAT is a mind-numbing, stress-inducing ritual of torture. The College Board can change the test all it likes, but no single exam, given on a single day, should determine anyone’s fate. The fact that we have been using this test to perform exactly this function for generations now is a national scandal.
The problems with the test are well known. It measures memorization, not intelligence. It favors the rich, who can afford preparatory crash courses. It freaks students out so completely that they cannot even think.
As the mother of two former SAT takers (one a sophomore in college, the other a senior in high school awaiting the result of his applications), I can also point out another problem with the test: It usually starts around 8:30 in the morning. I don’t know if the members of the College Board have ever met a 17-year-old at that hour, but I can tell you this is not the time of day I would choose to test their ability to do anything, except perhaps make orangutan sounds.
I sympathize with college-admissions deans who want a simple, accurate measurement of student potential. But no such measurement exists, as I can attest from 25 years as an English professor. Students flower or diminish unexpectedly, in ways unpredictable and strange. One of the great joys of teaching is that moment when a student makes a leap and creates something new. The possibility of that leap is unlikely to be measured by a test involving bubble sheets.
The only way to measure students’ potential is to look at the complex portrait of their lives: what their schools are like; how they’ve done in their courses; what they’ve chosen to study; what progress they’ve made over time; how they’ve reacted to adversity. Of course colleges try to take these nuanced portraits into account, but too often they’re overshadowed by the SAT. Our children, precious, brilliant, frustrating, confused souls that they are, are more than a set of scores.
On that long-ago test day, I scratched in the last of my bubbles and barely finished on time. I’d go on to take the test again, and in the end I got lucky — despite my somewhat gruesome scores, I squeezed off the wait list and into Wesleyan.
But this is what stayed with me from that day: When at last the sour proctor gave us permission to leave, everyone leapt to their feet, everyone except me and that girl with the French braid. I noticed, as I sat there, contemplating what I thought was my newly vanished future, that the back of her head was shaking.
When I finally got up to leave, I glanced down at her face. She was weeping.
Jennifer Finney Boylan is a contributing opinion writer, a professor at Colby College and the author of “Stuck in the Middle With You: A Memoir of Parenting in Three Genders.”
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