Last week when I was teaching the first session of a class to prepare 8th graders to take the SSAT private high school entrance exam, my student Jessica raised her hand and asked anxiously “What if I fail?” She feared being excluded from the San Francisco private high school network and exiled to some remote second rate school she’d likely never seen. Kids as young as 4th grade in the Bay Area and nationally are taking entrance exams this fall and filling out lengthy applications, facing a high pressure culture that transmits the message that even if students devote extensive hours beyond the school day to vocabulary flash cards and geometry formulas they might not be smart enough to earn a coveted seat. Although public school students in San Francisco face a parallel stress as their families navigate the school district’s torturous school selection process, they at least are spared the strain of competitive entrance exams.
I acknowledge my own complicity in this culture, working with students across the city to prepare for entrance exams that include the SSAT for high school and the SAT and ACT for college. I am personally torn between a desire to help young people access outstanding schools and a distressing sense that I am reinforcing a burdensome and competitive system. I have parents ask me to work with their children for as many as 30 hours during the fall on exams and application essays. One parent of a student from a prestigious private San Francisco high school had already sent her son to a professional ACT boot camp 20 hours a week for four weeks in the summer. She asked me to do an additional intensive with him. When I questioned how I could possibly make a further difference, she said that hopefully I could generate the additional two points on his composite score that would get him into Stanford. People joke about the caricature of the overwrought parent jockeying to get a child into the best kindergarten in 2015 to ensure an Ivy League admission in 2028, but the image reflects an underlying truth. Such an urban myth illustrates a mentality of scarcity born from the anxiety of our culturally and economically tentative era.
Ideally I favor the outright elimination of all standardized entrance exams, but since the exam regime, bolstered by an industry of test prep companies, is not about to relent anytime soon, educators and parents have to find achievable ways to counter students’ deficit perception that they’re statistically set against their peers. A number of sensitive school college counselors I know are setting some helpful boundaries, actively dissuading students from preparing for standardized tests anytime before mid-junior year. Many parents I work with carefully defuse the climate of anxiety by downplaying the exams, openly acknowledging their potential for harm and assuring their children that future material success and personal fulfillment hardly depend on a percentile rank made at age 11 or 18.
In my own work I attempt to reframe the meaning of entrance tests for young people. At the outset of classes like Jessica’s, before dealing with variables or word roots, I offer the simple metaphor of an open doorway students are passing through. An entrance test only swings the door forward or back a little more. But the door is always open.
I find I can be most reassuring through the reflective one on one conversation. When I first sit down in September or October with a student such as Jessica, I ask her to imagine where she might be in a year. We acknowledge that neither of us can know for sure, but regardless of scores, we affirm that she can feel right walking across her new campus. Maybe it will even feel like home.