Sunday, March 06, 2005

SAT: Is It Useful?

In a guest opinion piece in today's New York Times, "Topic: Essays Are Useful. Discuss." Curtis Sittenfeld concludes by writing, "Although the cottage industry preying on the SAT anxieties of parents and students has grown since I was a teenager, I still don't believe the test matters very much. I'm glad the SAT is including an essay not because I think the SAT is important, but because I think writing is."

I feel pretty much the same way. There are enough alternate routes into college without betting the farm on having to have high SAT scores. And I agree with Sittenfeld that even a five paragraph essay is better than the analogies test. If anything, it's an easy type of essay to write, so high school instructors will be able to teach kids how to write during their test-training sessions (and make no mistake, high schools will devote some time to training kids on how to pass the SAT writing exam).

Still, it's a pretty dumb system overall. The fact is that with a little practice and coaching, kids can bring up their SAT scores. And as Jay Mathews points out in "How to Ace the SAT Essay in 6 Easy Steps" coaching doesn't have to involve big bucks to Kaplan or some private tutor. A book on getting ready will do, or even cheaper in my view, visiting The College Board's Website for practicing and improving your writing for the test.

Still, there is that anxiety. Ironically I began to notice it visceral this past year, when my daughter became a highschool sophomore, and the school's guidance department held a meeting for parents to talk about the SAT and college admissions processes and how not to be anxious about them. I don't know whether people were already anxious or the meeting triggered their anxieties, but it didn't seem to me that people were less anxious. The message of the meeting was, in short, senior year will be here in a blink, and so now is the time to plan for college admitting hurtles and test preparation.

Among the recommendations re: the SAT -- take the practice tests, starting the sophomore year. Now the practice won't have the writing portion, but pay the fee and take it anyway. The sophomore test wouldn't be used in figuring the official SAT score. Meanwhile, as 10th graders, kids in Massachusetts have to pass a state-mandated MCAS test in order to graduate. I think with MCAS my daughter doesn't need to deal with the sophomore edition of the SAT too. And even without the MCAS, I wouldn't do it.

I also am encouraging my daughter not to take the PSAT her junior either. Again, in Massachusetts she's take a standardized nearly every year in one form or another, so practicing how to do that is a waste of time and money.

Also, my wife took the PSAT her junior year of highschool, and then took the SAT her senior year. She did much, much better on the SAT and was accused essentially of cheating. The statisticians at the College Board determined that there couldn't be an improvement as big as hers. She was forced to take the SAT yet again.

So why in the world would I want my daughter to take a PSAT? National Merit Scholarships? That's not likely. It's a bad percentage bet; her grades are mostly A's, with a B or two every now and again, and that's just enough to keep her out the NMS winner's circle. She sees enough standardized testing as it is.

Also, PSAT scores are now passed on to colleges, according to the guidance counselor, so it's not really just practice any more.

The SAT once will be enough, thank you.

All this talk about taking the practice because it's hard; take the practice because it's important; take the practice so you get into the college you want -- that's the stuff of anxiety.

Better this from my point of view. Take the test once and don't worry about it. It really is not that important and it certainly is not predictive of any damn thing about how a student will do in college. Take it once so schools have the scores if they want them as part of an overall package. However, if a school only takes students with scores of a certain rank, then to hell with that school. There are plenty of good places to learn -- often with better teachers than those that try to be exclusive about SAT scores -- that won't use the lower-than-their-standard SAT score as an excuse to scam you out of your admissions processing fee as they in mere seconds put your admissions folder in the "no" pile without so much as the few seconds it took to check your score.

That's the second part of this.

Admissions. We're not going to play the cast a wide net admissions game either. We'll pick one or two schools we like, and apply there only after we check on how they process admissions. And chances are, depending on scholarships of one kind or another (and plenty exist that don't depend on SAT scores), we might just opt for our kids to do the first two years at a community college, where they'll at least get to work with instructors who want to be teachers primarily.

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