A few weeks ago, I had the chance to do what every high school student dreams of doing: get out of class. My school was hosting a so-called “SAT guru,” who was coming to speak to those of us taking the next SAT about improving our scores. Though I wasn’t planning on taking this one, the Vice Principal is my neighbor and was willing to bend the rules slightly to take care of his own. My reaction: at least I’ll get out of class and even maybe learn something in the process. The knowledge that I gained from this self-proclaimed guru, however, was hardly what anyone would’ve expected.
The guru is fairly well known in his field. He was flown in to coach the Bush daughters through their SATs and is regularly shipped out from central Jersey to the Deep South to tutor the children of the United States’ most powerful families; the man obviously can get the job done. But as I was sitting there, ideas were percolating in my head that had nothing to do with the vocabulary words he was drilling into our minds; I was thinking about what this man represented. He is an archetype of a new system of education, a system in which “No Child [Is] Left Behind” because of the now-overwhelming importance placed on standardized tests by the College Board and federal government.
This man existed for only one purpose: to relate to high school juniors and seniors the way to sneak into a good SAT score. With his “golden dozen” list of must-know vocabulary and his pool of relations used for the analogy section, this expert was attempting to get in the minds of the Educational Testing Service’s staff (who write the test) and deconstruct the test from the inside out. It was then that I came to the crux of my discomfort with this man and what he represents. He was not attempting to expand our lexicon or explain basic concepts of algebra. Instead, he was trying to sneak us into the upper stratum of test scores so that colleges would find us more attractive.
The SAT has become, not a measure of intelligence, but a measure of how well a student is able to outwit the ETS. Whoever has enough money can hire a guru like the one I met. The SAT, with its accompanying baggage of endless preparation courses, has succeeded in reorienting the focus of education. Instead of conveying to young minds an appreciation of knowledge, teachers are forced to cram their students’ heads chock-full of tips and strategies for acing the next standardized test.
To see this new philosophy in action, one needs only to look at my sister’s elementary school. Last year, the state decided, in its immeasurable wisdom, to subject third graders to a new standardized test: the pretest of the pretest of the pretest of the HSPAs, the exam all high school students are required to pass in order to graduate. For an hour every day over the course of a week, third graders across the state of New Jersey were subjected to a mind-numbing battery of questions that drove my sister’s teachers up the wall. She eagerly recounted to my family how her teacher tore up her instruction sheet after the test was finished as another teacher let out a blood-curdling scream. The time, aggravation, and wasted energy that went into producing this horrid exam could have better been spent filling these young third graders with actual knowledge.
What the teachers, students, and parents that comprise academic America must realize is that passing a given test should not be the primary purpose of education. The SAT is not the be-all and end-all of education; an SAT score is not a tool used in divination to ascertain a person’s success later in life. We as a culture must not accept the gurus’ slogan of “Victory or Death!” because down that slippery slope lies the extinction of fun in education. We must not become so obsessed with one number that we ignore the other, more reliable and highly variegated, indicators of a student’s academic performance: grades, GPAs, the level of difficulty of courses taken, teacher recommendations. These telltale signals of scholastic achievement are necessary to flesh out the otherwise barebones number that, in the end, is all the College Board and its SATs, PSATs, and SAT IIs can give us. We must fight this testing obsession and return classrooms to places of study, not meeting rooms for the next SAT guru and his 10 quick tips to SAT success.