Reflections on American Education...
By Brianna Suslovic
Managing Editor for Story Ideas and Communication
Photo taken by Sally Zheng.
How many times did I say this after the junior class received our PSAT scores? Probably 215 times.
As I come of age in the American education system, I’m beginning to notice a trend. Students are being defined by their test scores, not their personalities or strengths. Am I only a percentile? A 34? A number between 600 and 2400?
I think not.
I’m a teenage girl who loves music, art and writing, but I am not a number. I want to prove the test scores wrong. I want to prove the test-givers wrong. Here’s why our system of standardized testing doesn’t work.
First of all, let’s talk money. How much does the College Board make off of students taking the SAT I, SAT II, PSAT, and Advanced Placement (AP) examinations? SAT math problem, anyone?
“The SAT I exam fee is currently $47 per student. According to the College Board, 1,597,329 students took the SAT I in June 2010. Assuming that all students paid the full exam fee, how much money did the College Board make off of this single examination?”
$75,074,463. In a single day. For an exam that’s administered seven times each school year. Remember, that doesn’t include College Board profit from AP exams, PSATs, score reports sent to colleges, or SAT Subject Test exams.
And of course, most students don’t just pay the $47 once. They take the test multiple times. And of course, many students pay for SAT prep in the form of books (approx. $20 for a review book), tutors (between $10 and $70 an hour in this area), or prep courses through centers like Kaplan (between $200 and $700 per course in this area). This niche has become a business - the test prep industry is exploding, and students are buying into it.
Many students feel as though it’s necessary to pay for these preparatory resources in order to impress the colleges that they’re applying to. The majority of American colleges now require at least an SAT or ACT score, and many competitive schools such as Harvard University and Princeton University now require supplementary SAT II scores as well. That’s a lot of test-taking and a lot of money.
Why do colleges require us to buy into this money-making scheme, anyways? Aren’t transcripts, GPAs, interviews, activity sheets, application forms and essays enough? What more can they ask of us? If colleges are looking for “well-rounded” students, they will not find these students with their heads crammed into SAT books in prep classes. Instead, colleges should look to the stage, the podium, the field, the community center. This is where America’s best and brightest students are.
Fortunately, some colleges and universities have realized this - over 815, in fact. These institutions have chosen to become test-optional, allowing students to apply without submitting scores on SATs or ACTs. At Bates College, this decision actually resulted in a more diverse student body, with the minority student population more than doubling in the first five years. Muhlenberg College has had a test-optional admissions process since 1996. The number of applications there has steadily increased. The list of test optional schools now includes prestigious names such as Bard College, Bowdoin College, George Mason University, Marist College, and Nazareth College.
Second, let’s address the pressure put on American high school students. Here’s the message that students get from the whole testing process:
“Your score doesn’t meet your school’s cutoff? Retake. Not happy with your retake score? Get a tutor. Too expensive? Take a prep course. Schedule’s too busy? Buy a book and teach yourself. Your retake score still isn’t good enough? You’re a failure who’ll never amount to anything in life. You might as well drop out now.”
A bit much? I think so.
When I chat with my classmates and realize that everyone else is paying someone to help them boost their scores, I can’t help but feel less-than. Yes, I have prep books, but I have neither time nor money for private tutors or preparatory classes. Is it really fair that some of my classmates can get one-on-one or course-based tips on how to outscore me? Isn’t this just widening the achievement gap between high- and low-income students?
If the American education system is based on the concept of equality, we should practice what we preach.
And besides, aren’t student schedules busy enough? Author and lecturer Alfie Kohn is right: “Every hour spent on such exam preparation is an hour not spent helping students to become critical, creative, curious learners.”
Are we really fostering a healthy environment to learn in? Walking around this fairly pleasant school and seeing test zombies tells me otherwise. Yes, Jamesville-Dewitt High School students have fun, but we also face pressure from parents, teachers and ourselves to pay up - for AP classes, ACTs, SATs, PSATs, and SAT IIs.
Change is on its way, but slowly. The Educational Reform Movement (T.E.R.M.) was started in 2010 by Phil Grossman and Lukas Arbogast, two high school students who wanted to see a change in American education. T.E.R.M. is a non-profit organization dedicated to changing the minds of policy-makers in America about the value of standardized tests and the true meaning of knowledge. Will rote memorization for a single test help us in the future? Probably not. Will an interesting movie-making project for English class stick in our minds? Definitely.
And what about other nations? Well, according to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, the United States is the only nation of its kind to rely so heavily on standardized multiple-choice tests. Nations such as Finland and Denmark offer comprehensive examinations that are not administered through test booklets on Saturday mornings. Instead, evaluations are based upon student school work samples or open-ended task completion. Students from these nations actually score higher than American students on the rigid multiple-choice exams.
A test called the Program for International Student Assessment is given to 15-year-old students by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. On this exam, American students ranked 15th to 25th worldwide in the areas of science, reading, and math. Top-rankers included Finland, Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Singapore.
Obviously, something needs to change. But where to start? Let’s take a look close to home, right inside those SAT prep classes.