Brendan Mernin

Brendan Mernin

A weeklong electronic journal.
Sept. 27 2000 6:00 PM

Brendan Mernin

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Today I want to talk about anxiety. Lately I find that I spend more and more time simply alleviating my students' and parents' anxiety. I'm not just talking about the extreme cases. Sure, you get those. There was the mother who just couldn't take it when she heard her daughter's practice test scores: 1380. After filling her usual tall glass of scotch, Mom retreated to another room, presumably to offer the daughter privacy for her lesson. A few minutes into the session (just, in fact, as I noticed a photograph of Dad shaking Nixon's hand), I heard the distinctive sound of someone choking. I said to the girl, "I think someone is choking." My student replied, "Oh no, that's just my mother, crying because I didn't get a 1400. She says I'll never get into Yale." As it turned out, the girl got a 1400, and it was Harvard that took her. Then there was the kid whose father called me every single day and night to talk about his son's progress. I was coaching the father more than the son. What it came down to was, the father was angry with the son for having so many advantages. He said, "I grew up in a tenement in the Bronx. I went to public school. I didn't have tutor. I worked for what I got, unlike my lazy son." Meanwhile, the son was studying through the night to please the father. I finally had to flat-out yell at the father to get him to stop harassing the kid—and me. He took it well; the kid made Williams College. When the acceptance letter arrived, they called me to rejoice, as families often do. I said to the father, "Congratulations. Now don't start talking about law school, at least not for a few months." I was joking. But it was already too late.

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These are the tough cases; generally, the parents I deal with are kind, hard-working people who try to do right by their kids. Last night I taught one girl for the third time, and I still haven't met her father. I've gone to houses every week for a year without seeing the father: He's out till 10 at night working to pay for two mortgages, three cars, private schools and, yes, tutoring. Parents are caught up in a status system that they didn't invent, but that they don't know how to ignore. The SAT is just part of it, a tool used to sort kids out. As I said yesterday, I don't think that it's a particularly accurate tool. The test hasn't really changed in the 11 years I've been helping kids score high on it. There have been some cosmetic changes, meant to protect the test's market: a few math questions without answer choices, a few vocabulary questions asked in the context of a reading passage. There was a controversial but not terribly important change in the scoring scale. These changes don't affect the test's bell-curve result, but they do allow the test writers to defend their product a little more easily on the New York Times op-ed page. To me, though, the most interesting change in standardized testing came when the name of the Achievement tests, a series of one hour, subject-based exams, was changed to the SAT II. That small shift let the testing authority say that the "SAT" really does test what you learned in school: math, chemistry, physics, French, Hebrew, U.S. history, and more.

As SAT I coaching becomes more widespread and sophisticated, those numbers will continue to lose meaning, especially at the high end. The colleges will eventually let go of the SAT I. The test writers, not eager to lose their niche as a massive, untaxed, "nonprofit" source of high-paying jobs for education professionals, will prod their friends at the colleges to admit kids with just SAT IIs. Colleges will move that way, and kids will send as many SAT IIs as they can.

Things are already drifting in this direction. Every year another selective school or two drops the SAT I as a requirement. For now, these schools, like Mount Holyoke, Dickinson, and Bates, tend to be small, expensive colleges that were having trouble playing the rankings game. But others will follow. They'll rely on grades, recommendations, essays, interviews, extracurricular activities, APs, and SAT IIs. A few years ago, sensing this trend, the test giant allowed students, for a fee, to choose "Score Choice" on their SAT IIs. This option allows kids to take the SAT II as many times as they want, sending only their best scores to the colleges. The result: Kids are now taking SAT II tests much earlier and more often. Last night I taught a student from Horace Mann (to me, the national epicenter of test anxiety), which now advises its students to start taking the writing SAT II in 10th grade and keep taking it until they reach the score they want. Last spring parents all over New York were desperate for tutors to help their children with the biology SAT II.

Will this be a better system? Perhaps. It won't get rid of coaching. But at least the coaching won't be about arcane strategies of timing and order of difficulty and what kind of answers are more likely to be right when you really have no idea what the words mean. What we're seeing now is the end the long reign of "aptitude" testing. When will it end? Maybe in five years, maybe 25. Meanwhile, kids and their parents will continue to lose sleep. Anxiety is here to stay.