Standardized test season is about to begin, and my daughter, a junior in high school, is sharpening No. 2 pencils and finding her student ID card in anticipation.
On the surface, test taking remains one of the few things unchanged from my high school years. Still no pens allowed; still paper booklets and Scantron sheets. Yet there’s a tension that didn’t exist for me. Sure, I needed to do well on my SAT and ACT to get into a good school, but almost no one I knew took a test prep class or studied for the exams in the late '70s and early '80s.
To be honest, I think I realized I was taking the ACT the day before the exam. My parents or counselor or someone had signed me up, and because it wasn’t a topic of discussion amongst my friends (the spring musical was WAY more important), we all just showed up bleary eyed one Saturday morning to take it.
Oh, how times have changed
A couple of years ago, the students in Seaholm’s graduating class were almost completely overlooked for admission to the University of Michigan, at least on first pass. A huge number of students with great grades in honors and AP classes who had terrific test scores were deferred or wait-listed instead, and when this happened, a chill went through the community.
Birmingham is one of the best school districts in the state, and if the cream of that crop of seniors couldn’t count Michigan among their nearly-sure-thing schools, who could? Now, the standardized tests take on a whole new heft. My daughter even chose to take a dry run ACT test as a sophomore so she’d know how much prep she would need to do (totally her idea, not mine!).
Yet I wonder if it really makes a difference in the long run of life whether a student ends up at Michigan or Indiana or Western or even Harvard for that matter. Sure, you make connections with other students that can help in professional life, but are the things you learn in college really the tools you need to succeed? Learning how to pay your rent, hold your liquor and meet your deadlines seem age-old lessons, but when will I ever really use organic chemistry or Russian Lit?
I’m not saying that a broad education is without value. Not at all. Learning how to think and examine things critically, learning how to formulate your thoughts into cogent arguments, and understanding the cultural, scientific, and sociological underpinnings of our everyday life gives a perspective that is invaluable.
What I am wondering is whether or not you need to spend four years of high school enhancing your CV and cramming for standardized tests to increase the likelihood of getting into MIT or Michigan.
The pressure's on
I had the pleasure in high school of choosing my activities solely based on my interests, not for the purpose of having a well-rounded college application. I did Model UN and theater and played softball because I loved it! I learned how to write Fortran and do punch card computer programming in the summer at Lawrence Tech.
I went to every dance (despite the computer geek girl that I was!), had a couple of boyfriends and even held down a part-time job as a cook at Manresa. I got good grades not to ensure entrance into Michigan but because that was my "job" at the time. I had the good fortune of being quite bright and found most things I did in life easy and fun in school, on the playing field and on stage. Maybe because of this ease, I knew I would succeed at whatever I chose, so stressing out about college didn’t even cross my mind.
Today’s students – including my daughter who, like me, seems to find all things easy, both in school and out, and is a tremendous student – worry and think about how to improve their test scores or round out their extracurricular activities to be more appealing to colleges.
More to life than test scores
I am happy to say that despite this storm of strategizing, my daughter has emerged with things she is truly passionate about and seems to have begun to see that there is more to life than test scores, grades and even Facebook. She has yet to show any interest in dances, however (of course, with a mom who dances sort of like Elaine from Seinfeld, she may have been scarred for life on that count).
When I was applying to college, I never felt that where I ended up was going to make or break me. I honestly didn’t give it that much thought. I applied to no more than six universities, and even with that had to be nagged by my parents to do the personal statements. I was lucky and knew then what I wanted to do with my life and never felt that my dreams and passions would be derailed by something as mundane as an ACT exam.
And you know what? I think that’s still the case.