So Debbie Stier’s book, The Perfect Score Project, is officially out.
While I don’t agree with every single one of Debbie’s recommendations (we’ve gone back and forth over some of them for months), I am utterly, phenomenally, incredibly proud of her for actually seeing this thing through to the finish. I can’t believe she made it, and I am so, so happy for her.
I’m not just saying this because there’s an entire chapter about me. Seriously. Although I do have to admit she did a pretty good job of capturing my personality, the good and the, uh, prickly.
And for the record, I’ve been expecting the backlash re: “helicopter parenting” à la The Atlantic. I’m planning to post my contribution to the discussion here since the forum moderators were kind enough to remove what I considered a surpassingly civil piece of commentary (perhaps I wasn’t supposed to mention my real name?), on the off chance that someone actually wants to read the real back story behind the sensationalistic headline. In all fairness, though, you slap on a headline like “I Took the SAT Seven Times to Help My Son Get Into College” (NOT Debbie’s decision, and only tenuously related to the real story!), and the crazies are going to come swarming out of the woodwork.
But here I’d like to discuss Elizabeth Kolbert’s article in The New Yorker. As I told Debbie, I found the article surpassingly trite and irritating. Not just because Kolbert actually ends with the SAT cliché to end all clichés (c’mon now, say it with me: The only thing the SAT tests is how well you take the SAT!) but also because she seems more concerned with wallowing in her own anxieties and pre-conceived notions about the test than in actually reading the book that Debbie wrote.
On one hand, I’m sure Kolbert gave readers the article they wanted: no one wants to hear that the SAT is worth something. Thinking about it, I realize that Debbie’s done something incredibly subversive — she’s written a book in which she 1) dares to take the SAT seriously, 2) openly admits that she likes it (oh horror of horrors!), and 3) suggests that doing well on it might actually require not only knowledge but actual work.
Taken together, that trifecta represents such a fundamental attack on received wisdom about the test that it’s a wonder anyone was willing to publish the book at all!
What’s interesting to me about Kolbert’s article, however, is how it embodies some of the central tropes and contradictions that inevitably run through discussions about the SAT. (Yes, I know that last sentence is written in academic-ese, but there is literally no other way to say it.)
As an adult, I found the test more difficult than I had as a teen and, at the same time, more disappointing. Many of the questions were tricky; some were genuinely hard. But, even at its most challenging, the exercise struck me as superficial. Critical thinking was never called for, let alone curiosity or imagination.
There are a couple of things to notice here. First, Kolbert invokes the standard straw man argument, criticizing the SAT for failing to do something it was never intended to do. American university applicants — unlike those in virtually every other country in the world — have ample opportunity to demonstrate their curiosity and imagination, and are in fact encouraged to do so. The SAT is intended to give a general snapshot of applicants’ ability to apply basic reading, math, and writing skills in unfamiliar settings. (Sometimes that’s called for in the real world too.) The point is not to test creativity; the point is to test the ability to apply basic knowledge and have a reasonably objective criterion by which to compare applicants from wildly different backgrounds.
More worrisome, however, is Kolbert’s implicit attitude that a test that fails to test imagination and creativity must be bad. Imagination and creativity are of course good things, but in order to get to the point where you can make those things work for you (in college, in life), you have to master a lot of other, more “superficial” skills first. Observing how a text is structured, for example, may seem superficial, but it is a crucial prerequisite to understanding how its argument is organized, and thus to formulating a cogent response. This “basic” skill, however, is one that almost none of my students have mastered. Most of them have never been asked to do it at all. Nevertheless, Kolbert — along with most of the American educational establishment — takes it as a given that an exercise that does not explicitly encourage creativity (as she defines it — I would argue that in certain ways, the SAT demands quite a bit of creativity) must lack value.
In this regard, Kolbert makes the classic mistake of an adult looking at the SAT; she assumes that students have already mastered “rote” skills to the point where they can apply them effortlessly in “creative” and “imaginative” ways, the way an educated adult could. Having read the writing of many, many high school students, however, I can confidently state that this is not the case.
What is most interesting, though, is Kolbert’s use of the term “critical thinking.” Notably, she fails to define the term — apparently she considers it so self-explanatory as to be unworthy of a definition. This is, of course, hardly a surprise; most of the people who criticize schools, the SAT, etc. for failing to promote “critical thinking” rarely bother to give actual examples of what they mean by the term. (Presumably people who argue in favor of critical thinking would acknowledge that it involves supporting one’s arguments, but perhaps that isn’t necessary when one is arguing in for so noble a cause.) In this case, however, Kolbert’s rhetorical omission allows her to criticize the test for doing precisely what she argues that it fails to do. This tortured logic becomes apparent when she states:
Soon I came to a reading section, with a long passage about writing and running by Haruki Murakami. Was this passage “analyzing an activity” or “challenging an assumption”? Both seemed valid. Was a phrase in a second reading passage “speculative” or “ironic” or “defensive”? Damned if I knew.
Now, incorrect answers to Critical Reading questions are written to sound eminently plausible — that’s one of the hallmarks of the SAT. The test consists of reading closely to determine which of those plausible-sounding answers is in fact directly supported by the text. Very, very rarely — and I do mean occasionally, as in one vaguely ambiguous question or so every five or six tests — The College Board flubs this up, but for the most part, the right answer is actually the right answer, even if it’s not an answer you expected, or like, or would phrase in a similar way. Having spent around five years dissecting quite literally hundreds of Critical Reading question and then producing a 380 page tome dedicated to picking apart the skills required to succeed on that section, I think I’ve earned the right to state that like them or not, answers to Critical Reading questions, especially ones to tone questions, are pretty damn accurate.
“Speculative” and “ironic” are also pretty far apart tone-wise. It’s obviously possible for a statement to be both, but the chance of those two things converging in the particular section that a Critical Reading question happens to ask about is well beyond unlikely. But rather than acknowledge, for example, a propensity for reading too far into or outside what the author intended, she relies on the classic strategy of turning the blame on the test. Because everyone knows that SAT answers are tricky and ambiguous, she has no need to justify herself further. She’s simply presenting what for her audience is likely a foregone conclusion.
Furthermore, let’s consider Kolbert’s assertion that “both [answers] seemed valid,” emphasis on seemed. Is not distinguishing between things that merely seem to be true and things that are actually true not a crucial component of so-called critical thinking? Or does the fact that it’s the SAT asking Kolbert to make fine distinctions negate the importance of that skill?
I am not just being sarcastic here — how would Kolbert define critical thinking and how, exactly, do the aspects of the test that she criticizes not actually require it? Or in other words, when she criticizes the SAT for not requiring “critical thinking,” what does she actually mean? Is it the multiple choice format she dislikes (with its ensuing elimination of any possible way of bullshitting one’s way through a question or the acquisition of partial credit)? But then when she does get to write in response to an open-ended prompt, she resents having to take a stance, normally a hallmark of good analytical writing, and one that she has no difficulty demonstrating in her article (presumably she knows better than to make a bunch of vague, unconnected statements, regardless of Debbie’s advice). Is it the tiresome necessity of reading of texts literally instead of (no pun intended) speculating about some deeper metaphorical significance?
What does she mean?
I would seriously like to know.