On watching my daughter head off to take the PSAT

It’s Saturday, October 19, exactly 167 years to-the-day after the first of my ancestors to come to America arrived in the United States at the port of New Orleans, on a ship from Bremen, Germany called Manco.  In fact, it was so long ago, Germany wasn’t even a country then.  If you’re interested, here’s the copy of the form that was filled out as they entered the United States.  It’s unlikely the clerk at the point of entry could understand them well enough to spell their names correctly; and given that it had been spelled so many ways in the records before 1846, it’s likely they didn’t think it mattered too much anyway.

We don’t know exactly why they left Germany to come here, but we think it was to escape military drafts; or perhaps they were being persecuted for their good looks:

Elizabeth and Franz

I thought of my ancestors as we got up early today to see my daughter, aged 15 for a few more days, off to take the PSAT, and wondered what they’d think if we could explain to them the way things operate these days.  And the more things unfolded, the more I thought about it.

Emily couldn’t find her calculator this morning, which is of course an important thing to have for this test. Normally, I’d stress out about things like this, but I instantly realized that it’s not really a big deal, so I shrugged my shoulders and let it slide.

For her the stakes are very low; she’s always done very well on standardized tests, but is probably five percentile points outside the range of National Merit cutoffs.  In other words, this is about as low-stakes as this high-stakes test gets.  Right now, the extraordinarily selective schools where scores really matter aren’t on her radar, and I doubt they will be when all is said and done.  Her outstanding academic performance should speak for itself when she applies to college, and will be supported by scores commensurate with her achievement in the classroom, for the schools who really care about such things.

But I can say that because I know what I know.  I thought about all the kids who don’t have parents who have worked in admissions and enrollment for 30 years.  For them, all testing is seen as very high-stakes.

Emily, like her brother before her, is a very bright kid, and yet by any measurements–standardized or not–she and her brother are very different people. Both are quiet and thoughtful, with varying degrees of genetic cynicism like their father, and healthy doses of warmth and affection like their mother. One is punctual and the other chronically late; one takes things as they come, while the other is focused and organized and always looking ahead; both have messy rooms, and interest in music; one is a whiz at math, while the other is facile with language and has been bitten by the acting bug. Multiply this by millions of kids, and you have a portrait of high school students in American and around the world.

And yet, we send all of them–future artists and chemists and actors and financial analysts and doctors and engineers–off to take a single test written by someone who has never met them; someone who has never taught them a class; someone who has never had the opportunity to see how they excel.  It is the most sterile, and in some ways, the most inappropriate use of the word assessment one might encounter.

We send them to take a test that purports to measure something important about them and all the other kids who are in, or who have gone through, high school.  Perhaps it does measure something important, if you consider the ability to pick the right–or most correct-answer from four given.  We all know that’s not at all like real life (where you’re not even always sure of the question, let alone given the range of discrete answers), but if given the choice, we’d probably all want to have that skill just in case; if nothing else, being able to eliminate wrong answers might come in handy if you’re ever on Let’s Make a Deal.

It’s important, however, to remember that the creator of the multiple-choice assessment considered the tests to be measures of lower-order thinking skills, despite their current reputation to the contrary. Now these tests are used not just to evaluate students but even entire school districts, as this email from my kids’ school points out.  And tests created by someone who’s never taught my kids drives how my kids are taught:

ScreenHunter_02 Oct. 19 12.03

When the scores come in, we’ll look at them, of course.  And when the mail arrives in bushel baskets, we’ll sort through it all, lingering fondly over some, and sending some unopened to the recycle bin.  But we’ll never define a complex human being by scores on a three-hour test on a Saturday morning; my earnest hope is that our kids don’t allow that to happen to themselves.

4 thoughts on “On watching my daughter head off to take the PSAT

  1. Thank you for such a thoughtful post. Both my kids left early this morning to their school to take the PSAT.

    I’m hoping of course they do well but I realize after reading your post that’s it’s not the be all and the end all of their future. They are both hard working students, but they are not exceptional (ie Ivy League/ super selective) students. And that’s ok. As we begin this college search process, I’m just hoping they will be accepted into a college that values them, and Where they will feel comfortable and happy.

    Sent from my iPhone



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