Here I was, all set for the SAT to take its final bow when, in a remarkable twist, it was announced that hundreds of testing centers would be closed and the January test postponed until Feb. 20th thanks to the blizzard about to descend on the east coast.
Given that it was 60 degrees on Christmas Day in New York City and that this is the first real snowfall of the year, I can’t help but find this to be an bizarrely coincidental turn of events. It would seem that the SAT is not about to go quietly.
That notwithstanding, tomorrow is still the last official SAT test date, and thus I feel obligated to post a few words in tribute to an exam that’s had a disproportionately large impact on my life over these last few years. (Full disclosure: I’m also posting this now because I’ve gone through the trouble of writing this post, and if I wait another month, I might get caught up in something and forget to post it.)
I’ll do my best not to get all mushy and sentimental.
From time to time, various students used to ask me hedgingly whether I loved the SAT. It was a reasonable question. After all, who would spend quite so much time tutoring and writing about a test they didn’t really, really like?
I can’t say, however, that I ever loved the SAT in a conventional sense. The test was something I happened to be good at more or less naturally (well, the verbal portion at least), and tutoring it was something I just happened to fall into. I didn’t start out with any particular agenda or viewpoint about the test; it was simply a necessary hurdle to be dealt with on the path to college, and as I saw it, my job was to make that hurdle as straightforward and painless as possible. To be sure, there were aspects of the tests that were genuinely interesting to discuss, and don’t even get me started on the let’s-use-Harry-Potter-examples-to-define-vocabulary-fests, but as I always told my students, “You don’t have to like it — you just have to take it.”
What I will say, though, is something I’ve heard from many tutors as well as from many students (and their parents), namely that after spending a certain amount of time grappling with the SAT, picking it apart and understanding its strengths as well as its shortcomings, you develop a sort of grudging respect for the test. For a lot of students, the SAT is the first truly challenging academic obstacle they’ve faced — the first test they couldn’t ace just by reading the Sparknotes version or programming their calculator with a bunch of formulas. For the students I tutored long-term, there was almost always a moment when it finally sank in: Oh. This test is actually difficult. I’m going to have to really work if I want to improve. And usually they rose to the challenge.
But the interesting part is that what started out as no more than a nuisance, another hoop to jump through on the way to college, could sometimes turn into a real educational experience — one that left them noticeably more comfortable reading college-level material, whether or not they got all the way to where they wanted to go. And when they did improve, sometimes to levels beyond what their parents had thought them capable of, their sense of accomplishment was enormous. They had fought for those scores. Perhaps I lack imagination, but I just don’t see students having those types of experiences quite as often with the new test.
That’s a best-case scenario, of course; I think the worst-case scenarios have been sufficiently rehashed elsewhere to make it unnecessary for me to go into all that here. But regardless of what you happen to think of the SAT, there’s a lot to be said for having the experience of wrestling with something just high enough above your level to be genuinely challenging but just close enough to be within reach.
This test has also led me down roads I never could have foreseen. While I’ve also been primarily interested in the SAT’s role as a cultural flashpoint, in the way it sits right at the crux of a whole host of social and educational issues, it’s also taught me more than I ever could have imagined about what constitutes effective teaching, how the reading process works, and about the gap between high school and college learning. And I’ve met a lot of (mostly) great people because of it, many of whom have become not only colleagues but also friends. I never thought I’d say this, but I owe the SAT a lot. It wasn’t a perfect test, but considered within the narrow confines of what it could realistically be expected to demonstrate, it did its job pretty well.
So on that note, I’m going to say something that might sound odd: to those of you taking this last test, consider yourselves lucky. Consider yourselves lucky to have been given the opportunity to take a test that holds you to an actual standard; that gives you a snapshot of the type of vocabulary and reading that genuinely reflect what you’ll encounter in college; that isn’t designed to pander to your ego by twisting the numbers until they’re all but meaningless.
And if you’ve been granted a reprieve for tomorrow, enjoy the snow day and catch up on your sleep.