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Yesterday, I was a cog in the machine…

October 13, 2011

I had to give the PSAT to freshmen.

Imagine the scene—unless you are truly one of the lucky wise ones, you’ve had to endure it the joys of standardized testing.

Here’s the quote that just did me in: “Also use the back of the test book for section 12. Find the college major that most interests you. Print the code number and fill in the corresponding circles in section 12.”

And here’s the back of the test book:

Please find me the freshman that can explain the difference between Molecular Biology and Biotechnology, or what Area Studies is, what classes one might take to major in Anthropology and how they might differ from Sociology. And pray tell, what is a major in college in the first place? Did you know that you can create you own at many schools?

I don’t fault freshmen for not knowing these things—they shouldn’t know them. But yet we ask them to bubble this in all the same, along with their GPA, which they don’t have yet since they haven’t gotten any grades, religious preference and a bunch of other completely useless questions that students have either no clue as to the answer to the question or no clue as to why they’re being asked the question in the fist place.

FYI—the reason the College Board asks all these questions is so that they can turn around and sell this data to colleges. These colleges in turn then send out promotional materials to many, many more students than have even the slightest chance for admission, and dupe students into thinking that somehow because they got a glossy brochure from an Ivy they’re special, when actually, we’re robbing their specialness from them one bubble sheet at a time.

I think the only message we should be sending to freshmen is—don’t worry about the future—now is the time to explore, discover your interests, try new things with all your might, and most of all, form strong bonds with your teachers. Do these things and everything else will take care of itself. No seriously. If you do these things as a freshman, and carry them forward, colleges will be begging to admit you.

But my students are incredibly earnest. When they get these PSAT packets, they take them seriously. Some of their parents take it way too seriously and sign them up for PSAT prep over the weekends. A number of our teachers, even in freshmen year, give up a week or more of instruction to do PSAT prep. For what purpose?

And here’s something from my days as a college counselor that I think is even worse. It is enviable that if you give the PSAT to students who haven’t yet even studied all the math on the PSAT, some are going to get scores that are really bad. Based on the bevy of standardized tests kids take before high school, it isn’t too hard to predict who these kids are, either. And in many schools the only thing that happens after the PSAT is one day they get a letter (or now an email) and find out that they scored in the 30th percentile. What then? Don’t we as educators have a responsibility to help that child contextualize that information and understand that this doesn’t mean their future is doomed, and perhaps even begin to help identify what that student needs to work on to improve?

I’ve railed against the PSAT and National Merit before, so this rant is more specifically directed at the practice of giving this test to freshmen, but I will assert that I have worked at one of the most famous high schools in the nation, which makes the headlines every time the President of the United States decides to send his children there, and they only give the PSAT to 11th graders. In this day and age, when many independent school students take the SAT 4 and 5 times often starting in the sophomore year, is it necessary to give kids a Practice for the Practice for the PSAT which is just practice for the SAT that they will take 4 times? How much money do we need to give to the College Board before we say enough is enough?

Here’s my bottom line—I don’t think a student’s first exposure to the college process should be filling in bubble sheets as a 9th grader for the PSAT. And I don’t think it should be Mom and Dad wrapping up their kid in their alma mater’s onesie and dragging them to sporting events at Uberselective U every year, either. Once I worked as a college counselor for a few years and watched the pain students went through trying to live up to their parent’s expectations to attend their alma mater or some other highly selective school, I basically shelved all my college gear, and stopped talking about where I went to college, yet I still get asked the question of where I went to school by my students all the time.

How should we introduce students to the college process? For the incredibly privileged students I teach, here’s what we did, back when I was a College Counselor at a boarding school. We loaded all the kids in a bus and gave them this questionnaire:

View this document on Scribd

I love this questionnaire, because it basically helps students to see that they inhabit a privileged world that all but guarantees they will attend college from the moment they are born, and this is far from the norm. Many of the perceptions (if not most) my students have about colleges and the college process are way off-base.

And we drove the bus to the University of Delaware, 15 minutes away. We sent the students out on a campus tour, had them eat lunch in the dining hall, and listen to the admissions office talk about the school, and concluded with a round table discussion with a number of current UDel students and free time to explore the campus and town. We specifically chose the University of Delaware because not only was it close, but also because it happened to be an absolutely awesome school, in a great college town, that at the time, was not insanely selective, and many of our students completely overlooked it as beneath them. But that trip changed perspectives—hearing from actual students, and exploring the town made students say things like—”wow, college is going to be pretty great—I had no idea that you could start a skydiving club in college, or work for a daily newspaper.” And since we were a boarding school, we got to give kids this experience completely free from their parents and any pressure they may bring.

I guess it comes back to how you view the purpose of education. Is it to earn top scores on tests like the PSAT so you can earn admission to top schools to take more tests to get top scores on more tests to go to more top schools? Or do you see the purpose as something more?

Here’s what I wrote back when I was a college counselor for a personal statement:

I encourage my students to avoid the stress and superficiality of the college process by embracing the incredible opportunity presented by the next four years—a chance to study subjects they have never heard of, like cultural anthropology, or get involved in organizations they have never imagined, such as contests to build robots capable of navigating across the desert at 50 mph. Rather than focusing on ever increasing admissions stats, standardized tests, and all the shallow measures found in US News’s Rankings, I help them to conduct a deeper search of colleges beyond student-to-teacher ratios. Together we read about specific courses, download syllabi from websites, and think about how they can start to think about the ideas and questions they will explore in the next four years. At the same time, I push my students to more fully engage their remaining year in high school, and to plan what legacy they wish to leave our community. I encourage my students to see essays not as obstacles to be overcome, but as moments to articulate their personal vision. When students see the college process in this way, they seize both the opportunity present today and the promise of the future. They realize that nearly every college has dynamic, engaging professors eager to work with bright motivated students who want to change the world and the incredible resources to help them make a difference. They focus less on which college they will ultimately get in to, and more on what they will do when they get there. In turn, they become more compelling candidates for any college searching for students who will make an impact on its campus.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. October 13, 2011 8:13 pm

    I see no point to pSAT for freshman. I wish that National Merit used SAT scores instead of pSAT scores, since the pSATs have lower validity particularly at the top end, where the National Merit thresholds are set.

    As long as the pSAT is used as the National Merit test though, all juniors should take it.

    My son will be taking it as a sophomore this year, because his consultant teacher at the home-school umbrella wants to know the score. There is no other reason, since he has previously taken the SAT and is familiar with the format.

  2. October 13, 2011 8:26 pm

    Our school would take yearly “advisory” trips to colleges and universities. For 9th graders this was typically just a fun day of acclimating to college culture. As the years progressed it would become more focused and interesting as the students began to know more about their goals.

    It was an excellent bonding and learning experience and I highly recommend parents who aren’t lucky to have you as a teacher take their children to see what college is all about.

    As for the marketing, it is frustrating and disgusting how much we let them spam our students with ads, false scholarships, and “suggested colleges”. I hope it ends soon.

  3. October 13, 2011 11:06 pm

    I put “athletic training” on my intended major code only because it had the word “athletic” in it.

  4. October 14, 2011 8:17 am

    The mindless hoops we ask people to jump through never ceases to amaze me. I only wish someone was listening. Why do we do this to our students? I wonder what they are thinking as they are asked to fill in these bubbles.


  5. October 14, 2011 8:19 am

    The PSAT for freshman is a ridiculous exercise. It is a waste of money on everyone’s part and should not be done!

    Strong feelings about that on this end. I dare anyone to prove it a truly worthy experience.


  6. October 15, 2011 9:56 am

    Has anyone told the students that they don’t have to open the email that comes with their scores? They can just hit delete? If the stated goal of that experience was to give students a chance to get a feel for the standardized testing kind of environment, then reviewing SCORES on the test are not part of the stated goal. The argument that the scores are a benchmark is flawed, too. 9th graders have not progressed far enough in their math courses to have been exposed to all the content being tested. So, presumably, we’ve met our goal: everyone has seen what it’s like to take a standardized test (I’m not saying I agree with that stated goal). So, the week the scores come back, what if students saw this sign in the hallway?

    “Instead of opening my PSAT scores, I ….” and they were asked to fill in something that mattered to them. Something that made them proud. Something that represented a new accomplishment.

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