Standardized tests — a valuable trial by fire

As the pandemic and the diversity initiatives chipped away at standardized testing (SAT/ACT) requirements in US colleges over the last year (temporarily and possibly, permanently), I watched in sadness.

I watched in sadness that the incentive to leverage this last, powerful opportunity in high school was now being taken away from students, often from the ones who would benefit the most.

I will leave contentious data aside — whether the scores are a predictor of college freshman year success, whether affluent children benefit from prep courses, whether they truly measure a child’s capabilities, etc. The data has merit, of course, but anecdotal experiences such as mine can possibly affirm or question the data or even just add color to them.

As a mother who saw her child prepare, struggle initially and then slowly improve her scores (with no outside test prep), I believe now that the tests have been a valuable trial by fire which has made her more ready for college (and life) than she would have been otherwise.

Soon after she accepted a college of her choice, she and I discussed her journey to her final SAT score (which also, unpredictably, included a pandemic!). Here is what we discovered.

  1. The test preparation helped her revise all her math, science and language arts knowledge that had become somewhat rusty. She emerges with a stronger grammar and nimbler math skills than she would have without the tests. In fact, she has become the proud grammar monster at home correcting the rest of us, laughingly inserting a comma here and removing a redundant phrase there!!
  2. Like many children, she initially struggled with the reading comprehension sections. In fact, even as a strong performer in her school English classes, she fared poorly in the reading sections. It was a frustrating point in her journey. Reading a complex, often boring(!) passage with intense focus, picking important info and filtering out the flak, drawing key insights, all in a ridiculously short time is nothing other than the aforesaid trial by fire. Over a year of practice, she developed her vocabulary (through free resources like vocabtest.org), and forced herself to read newspaper editorials to get familiar with complex passages. This skill of deep reading will stand by her in college and beyond.
  3. The reading comprehension passages are in subjects as varied as economics, foreign policy, archaeology, social sciences, politics and history, often either in archaic or in academic language. This exposure (along with her broader reading of editorials, as mentioned above) has made her more conversant with a broad range of topics and more confident in discussing them with facts and nuances. What a learning it has been!
  4. At a higher level, she was able to analyze herself and decide on her strategy for preparation. After a couple of trials with test prep classes, she preferred to prepare by herself. That said, she learnt to ask when she struggled and requested coaching from her seniors, teachers and parents. This ownership — to decide on the approach, when to take help and when go solo — is also a crucial skill for both professional and personal lives.
  5. Needless to say, the process had its stresses, time pressures and “failures” (as in poor scores) led to many meltdowns and frustrations. An euphoria after one great practice test would be followed by another with pathetic performance! With our pep talks, her self-motivation and frozen yogurt (!), she picked herself up and went ahead. What a way to build grit!

Will all children get the same impact? Of course, not. Parents (and schools) do have to help children avoid excessive stress — providing test prep coaching and resources, helping manage time, teaching mental techniques for stress management, provide motivation through peer groups are all possible ideas (Putting in a plug for her daily Pranayama and chanting routine)

Still, what cannot be denied is that the test prep can build skills and character in a short time — a true trial by fire. Is it fair of us to deny our children this opportunity?

Content/Product Marketer, Messaging Crafter, Startup Founder, Spiritual Seeker, Mom