Musings From Mama

by Sharon Rosen Leib March 29, 2011


I considered myself too cool and too laidback to let the whole where’s-my-kid-going-to-apply-to-college thing get to me. Then high school junior year happened. Everyone’s thinking about it. When an adult meets your kid and finds out he or she is a junior, the “Where do you want to go to college?” question invariably crops up. To my horror, I realized I’m guilty of asking other people’s kids this question a lot myself.

This laser-beam focus on college started getting to me. I worried about all the standardized tests and how they impacted our daughter’s chances of being admitted to her dream schools. I obsessed over questions like: Is it better for her to take the ACT or the SAT? What’s the difference anyway? What’s a decent score? Is a group SAT prep class or a private tutor better for her? If she takes an AP (Advanced Placement) class does she have to take the AP test? Will it look bad if she doesn’t take the AP test?

I’d just begun to wonder about the importance of SAT Subject Tests when I received the following e-mail from the College Board (the scary, mysterious, CIA-like institution that charges money for all these standardized tests, grades them, keeps test records and sends out score reports). I’ve taken the liberty of including the e-mail’s implied subtext in italics:

“Dear Parent, Now is a critical time in your child’s education, and you probably want to make sure you’ve done everything possible to help him or her take the best next step in life. So if you don’t sign your kids up for these tests you’re failing to be a conscientious parent and tanking their chances of being accepted to a good college. Your child may have already taken the PSAT/NMSQT®. He or she may have even taken the SAT®. These are both great steps (yet definitely not enough), but there are also advantages (including more money for us) in taking one or more SAT Subject Tests™ to help strengthen your child’s college application.”

This pitch typifies the psychological exploitation of high school kids and their parents by implying that: a) There are always more tests your kid can take; b) Whatever you’re doing is not enough to guarantee your kid will be accepted to a “good” college; and c) You should encourage your kid to take as many tests as possible.

Way back when I was a high school junior in the late 1970s, we took the PSAT once, in the fall of junior year. Now most high school kids in our San Dieguito Union High School District take the PSAT three times — in the fall of their freshman, sophomore and junior years. Let’s all say OVERKILL together. In the dark ages, we took the SAT maybe twice, tops — in the spring of junior year and the fall of senior year. Nowadays kids take the SAT multiple times starting in the spring of their sophomore year. Please repeat OVERKILL. We refuse to succumb. Our oldest daughter is waiting until May of junior year to take the SAT for the first time.

But I must admit that we’ve succumbed to the expensive test-prep routine. After talking to several friends, we decided to send our daughter to a highly recommended private test-prep tutor. We chose not to send her to one of the ever-expanding list of pricey group prep courses like Princeton Review or Catalyst Prep’s SAT Boot Camp or Revolution Prep or…(the list goes on). I feel guilty about the high cost of private tutoring. Many families can’t afford any kind of formal test prep for their kids. These less privileged kids miss out on the strategic insight prep classes and tutors provide, putting them at an unfair disadvantage.

Standardized tests hold parents like us, striving to give our kids the best shot at their dream colleges, in thrall. We’re willing to shell out good money to give our kids a leg up on these all-important tests. By paying for a tutor, we’re giving our daughter the support to do her best. We’re grateful we can afford this. But have we fallen into the testing trap?

What if after all the hours of tutoring, prep courses and practice tests our kids don’t get “high enough” scores? Would the sky fall in? Would the College Board put them on a college blacklist? Do standardized test scores define them or chart the course of their futures? No, no and no. Then what really is all the fuss about? We can’t help ourselves from wanting, as the College Board chillingly says, to do everything possible to give our kids “the next best step in life.”


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