Saturday, January 15, 2011

The SAT -- Maybe I'm not so 'verbal' after all by Sharon Johnson O'Donnell

My middle son, David, 16, is preparing to take the SAT next Saturday, while studying for final exams in subjects like Honors Chemistry and Honors US History. At the same time, my 4th grader has been mastering long division. It's been busy and chaotic at our house and not exactly a fun time. In helping gather materials for David to study for the SAT, I've become very frustrated with the fact that our young people's futures are on the line based on a test with such ambiguous questions, tricky presentations, and vocabulary words that people rarely use in reality. There was one question I found on his PSAT that annoyed me so much that I wrote to the College Board about it. It was a reading passage one (Ugh! Thought I liked to read but these boring, long-winded passages) -- about society and TV and then it asked something about the author's implications of several sentences. It was not straightforward at all but required much examination because several of the answers seemed possible. And this is a timed test. I sent the question to my Writers Group, which is composed of 9 people, including former English teachers, TV reporters, editors, columnists, and published writers -- out of the five possible answers, their responses included 4 different answers. How in the world are stressed-out high school students supposed to answer such a question in a timed environment when professional, educated adults found viable reasons for 4 answers? Thus, I wrote to the College Board about this, and of course I received a brief 'thanks for your comment' letter, and that was it.

Still, I haven't been able to get over how much of an impact this test plays in the futures of our teenagers. Gaining admission in to a college is much more competitive now than it was 20 years ago, and that all-important SAT grade is more important than ever. The pressure on my son and his peers is significantly higher than it was on me when I took the test in 1980. And let's not even talk about the high school GPA. I know this is having a detrimental effect on the mental, physical, and emotional health of our teens, and it concerns me a great deal. Tests are inevitable, but I don't feel we need to make the questions tricky.

My fourth-grader's long division, by contrast, was a breath of fresh air: you do the division, multiplication, and subtraction, and repeat the process until you get an answer and remainder. A definite answer. No ambiguity. No implications. As a journalism major and freelance writer, I never thought I'd prefer any kind of math over anything reading/writing related; however, some questions on the SAT verbal section have made me think twice about that.

Some of the words on the test are ones that everyone should know and that are used in the business world often. But what is the use in being tested on ones that 99.9% of the population doesn't know? Let's let them concentrate on the words they really need to know to communicate effectively rather than words that make high school English teachers scratch their heads as they ponder a two blank sentence completion question in the vocabulary section.

January 22nd approaches. D-Day. So to my son and to all those other teens out there who will be taking the test next Saturday -- good luck -- I will be thinking of you and thanking God that I don't have to take it myself.



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