Posted on: March 5, 2019
I had a great tutoring moment last week. During my final tutoring session with one of my students before the August SAT, he was telling me what he’s been doing in his final push to be ready. He’s been a dream student and has done everything I’ve asked of him: taken practice tests often and seriously, compiled notes on his errors and what he’d learned, and worked hard to build the good test-taking habits that will help him succeed on test day. He also mentioned taking another practice test at home. One that I hadn’t given him. One he found online. As it turns out, he had not found the leaked copy of last October’s international test that he would ultimately take for real two days later, but instead, a test inadvertently leaked by the state of Maine on its official website last year. I was impressed with how thoroughly he’d done his homework and how seriously he was taking his preparation, so I told him so. I’ll remember his simple response and likely quote it to other students for a long time: “It’s my job.”
Wow. As much as I wish I could take credit for this kid’s work ethic, I really can’t. He’s just an amazing kid who wants very much to be successful and is doing his best to do just that. He was, as he said, just doing his job. And I was really proud of him for it.
Cut to yesterday’s tweet by the College Board, obliquely addressing the issue that they created by reusing a test that’s been on the internet for months. Part of it reads, “If we determine students have gained an unfair advantage, we will take appropriate actions including canceling test scores and, in some cases, prohibiting them from taking another College Board assessment.” My disappointment at this reaction stands in stark contrast to the pride I felt with my student.
In addition to being a tutor, I’m also a parent. An adult doing his best to raise his kids to do the right thing. But kids are kids and adults need to be adults. If I leave a cookie on the table in front of my five-year-old son and turn around, I shouldn’t be surprised if he eats it. He’s five. It’s a cookie. In fact, it’s actually my fault that the cookie got eaten. In much the same way, the College Board shouldn’t be surprised if students are using online exams to prepare. Should it work hard to not have tests leak online in the first place and stop the legitimately bad actors who are out there releasing unauthorized tests or looking to cheat? Of course. Should it take exam security seriously? Absolutely. But that seriousness must include not reusing exams that can be found online with nothing more than a google search. The College Board must be the adults in this situation. Their admirable mission statement is all about “delivering opportunity.” As adults, we should look for every chance we get to deliver students the opportunity to succeed. Leaving a cookie on the table doesn’t set kids up for success.
I have been a tutor for over 13 years, and have spent much of that time as an SAT apologist. Surely an imperfect measure of student readiness for college and clearly not a measure of “intelligence” or “IQ,” whatever those terms mean, the SAT is, like most things in life, a test of acquired skills. I can’t really tell you what it measures, so in one sense, it’s a bad test. But it does have one saving grace: it’s consistently bad and, thus, is able to be prepared for. I’ve worked with hundreds of students and know firsthand just how much determined students can change their scores. So, in another sense, the SAT as proxy for how committed students are to their success and how seriously they take their education is actually not a bad metric to decide who gets admitted to which college. Moreover, aside from college admissions, what’s the real benefit of SAT prep? To me, it’s helping a student set a goal and work hard to overcome an often stressful and intimidating rite of passage. And what does success look like? Success is knowing that you’ve worked hard and given your all, seeing your hard work pay off, and feeling like you’ve taken control of your life. What better lesson to teach high schoolers soon to head off to college on their own?
The SAT can actually be a positive experience. I’ve seen it happen many times. The power that we as a society ascribe to this test is really amazing. Just ask a group of highly educated and successful adults about their SAT scores and you’ll see them reduced almost to teenagers again by the thought of it. But with that outsized view of this test comes an unlooked for benefit. The SAT, to many, is the big, bad dragon guarding the gates to college, but – at the risk of overextending a metaphor – the slaying of dragons is how heroes are made.
The young heroes who did battle with the SAT this week – whether or not they happened to stumble upon some online test in their preparation – shouldn’t be condemned. We should be proud of them. I sincerely hope the College Board chooses not to take any disciplinary action against the students who left nothing to chance, the students who marshalled all their resources to do their best in the service of their own futures. I hope that I can be as proud of the College Board as I am of my students.