Put to the Test

To show solidarity with my 17-year-old son, I decided to take the SAT again -- and discovered it was much tougher the second time around.
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Like Son, Like Father

It was a bright, breezy morning of drifting sunlight and chorusing birds, so I decided to ruin it by taking the SAT.

I had been deeply -- some might say obsessively -- involved in the application process for my college-bound son, Gillum, so in part I was moved to take the test by parental fellow feeling. But first I had to drop off Gillum into a swarm of teenagers hiving at the entrance of the local high school on the morning of his exam. There they waited for the great glass doors to swing open so they could slip into the seat of a flimsy pink-and-blue polypropylene combo chair-desk, open their test booklets, grip their sharpened No. 2 pencils, and submit themselves to the SAT. They would carefully mark only one answer for each question, and they would make sure to fill in the entire circle darkly and completely. They would not make any stray marks on their answer sheet. If they erased, they would do so completely, because incomplete erasures may be scored as intended answers. If they finished before time was called, they would check their work on that section. They would not turn to any other section. And this is how they would determine the course of the rest of their lives.

At least that's what a lot of them believed they were doing -- my son among them, I think -- and my heart went out to them, and to him. Waiting at the doors they all looked slightly lost, as if the combination of early-morning sleepiness and the weight of what they were about to do had settled around them like a fog. I learned later the real reason they were disoriented was that they had been told they couldn't bring their cell phones into the building; none of them had gone four hours without sending a text since middle school.

When I got home I made a cup of coffee and sharpened a packet of pencils, No. 2s, of course. I pulled a thick workbook from the shelf and settled myself in the sunlight at a table on our back porch. I'd gotten the workbook from my son, who had gotten it from Kaplan, which furnished all its students with fat compilations of real SATs to use for practice. The book, like the company, was an artifact of the gluttonous industry that surrounds the SAT -- fed by the same anxieties that stirred my son and that still had the power to stir me, as the clutch of my stomach testified when I glimpsed the command written across the bottom of the cover: do not open this book until the supervisor tells you to do so.

The pages of the book before me now looked unpleasantly familiar, as though I had bumped into a grade-school bully I hadn't seen in 30 years. The answer sheet, printed on pulpy newsprint, was the same: still stamped with the rows of little ovals, massed in military formation, waiting on me to fill in the wrong one. But there had been changes, too, the most dramatic one appearing right up front, on the second page. In the old days the test alternated math sections with sections covering reading ability, vocabulary, and grammar. This SAT opened with an essay question. The test takers are given two lined pages to fill with crisp, beguiling prose and 25 minutes to do it.

The instructions had that brisk tone I'd long remembered -- the tone of a not-very-nice adult trying to act friendly with youngsters. "Your essay must be written on the lines provided on your answer sheet; you will receive no other paper on which to write." Understood? "Try to write or print so that what you are writing is legible." Please don't be your usual slob self. "You will have enough space if you write on every line, avoid wide margins, and keep your handwriting to a reasonable size." Reasonable. That means not too big. Okay?

I set our kitchen timer to 25 minutes, turned the page and looked at the essay question, which instructed me to think about a quotation from the writer Patricia Moyes. "It is often interesting to consider the trifling causes that lead to great events," she wrote.

"Assignment: Do small events lead to catastrophes or are great events initiated by other causes? Plan and write an essay in which you develop your point of view on this issue."

Four or five sharpened pencils lay on the table in front of me, barrel to barrel like a little river raft. I picked one up and angled the tip into the soft newsprint. The timer ticked. As I wrote, I found myself unexpectedly inspired, to the point of writer's cramp. It had been a long time since I had written by hand continuously for 25 minutes. I concluded the essay with a question of my own, one that I thought nicely captured the ambiguity of the topic and served as a piquant summary of my thoughts.

Continued on page 2:  A Bittersweet Lesson


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