Put to the Test

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A Bittersweet Lesson

I popped up from the table, pleased, and decided to reward myself with a fresh cup of coffee; 10 minutes later I remembered that I had three more hours of test to take. This is another way that an adult's life is different from a high school student's -- no proctors to tell you to stop screwing around. I hustled back to my seat at the table. There were nine more sections to go, ranging in length from 10 to 25 minutes. I set the timer again. Next was a math section, not my favorite. Page after page was strewn with x's and y's in weird combinations, bunched into equations and wrapped in parentheses, crouched under slash marks, sneaking around the corners of triangles, all of them laid out in a line and marching straight into a question mark, as if to say, "Well?"

For all I knew they could have been hieroglyphics. I had no idea I had forgotten so much, and wondered, while I was at it, how much I'd ever known to begin with. I'd been a word person exclusively, managing to make a living without ever having to trouble myself with integers, factors, quotients, prime numbers, or any of the other mysteries that were staring at me from the page. As a consequence, entire quadrants of my brain had turned to brick. I felt it physically, a large, dense, inert mass at the center of my cranial cavity.

At length the timer chimed and I raised my head from my hands, where it had been resting quietly. I rose to wash the breakfast dishes, defiantly aware I was again violating the time restrictions. When I returned to the table I consoled myself with the knowledge that the next two sections were what used to be called the "verbal" part of the test, now known as "critical reading." After a while, nervousness was less a threat to my performance than narcolepsy.

Thanks to the dish washing, coffee making, dog walking, and sports-page reading I'd indulged in to stretch the breaks and try to recharge my brain, I finished my own test session past lunchtime. I got through the 10 sections in about four and a half hours -- well over my allotted three hours and 45 minutes. By then my son had returned from taking the test.

"Hard" was all he said when I asked him how the SAT had gone.

"No kidding," I said. After he'd eaten a couple of hot dogs -- this took him 30 seconds -- I enlisted him to help me score my test. From the key provided he read the correct answers while I scanned my little ovals, which I had filled in darkly and completely -- very darkly and completely but, it was soon apparent, not very correctly. There were moments, while grading the math sections, when I thought he might be putting me on. Section 9, a series of algebraic problems, consisted of 16 questions; I had managed to answer 12 of them and got 11 of them wrong.

"Wow," he said. "That's like what, 8 percent correct?"

"How would I know?" I said, testy. "I can't do percentages."

"Obviously."

I used his calculator to compute my raw score on the SAT scale, which runs from 200 to 800 for both math and critical reading. My reading score was okay -- pretty damn good, in fact. The math? I'm not saying. But it was low enough to take your breath away. Scoring the essay on a 1 to 6 scale was trickier. College Board guidelines say that for an essay to receive the highest score of 6, it must show "clear coherence and progression of ideas," "use language skillfully," "effectively and insightfully develop its point of view," and "use appropriate examples."

A fitting description of my essay, I thought. It had clearly earned a 6, but I knocked a point off for modesty's sake. Even with the strong essay score, my SATs were close to a disaster, as they had been 35 years ago.

When my son's scores popped into his e-mail queue a few weeks later, they were good -- much, much better than mine, for what it's worth. They were good enough, anyway, not to require serious revisions to the early list of schools he was compiling: The safeties were still a decent bet, the reach schools still a reach.

We were back where we'd started but with a deepened appreciation, in my case, for where we stood. My tussle with the SAT exemplified the phase of parenthood my wife and I were entering into. After 18 years it's time for letting go -- not just of our kids as they step into the wider world but also of the armor that has served us so well as parents. No more pretensions to omniscience; my math score had taken care of that. No more believing that they're under our guidance, when their talents and strengths so often and so plainly exceed our own. No more avoiding the truth that a teacher's greatest triumph comes when his student leaves him behind.

It was a bittersweet lesson, like so many others at this time of life. And I'm grateful to the SAT for teaching it -- but I'd trade it in tomorrow for another 300 points on my math score.

Excerpted from Crazy U: One Dad's Crash Course in Getting His Kid into College, by Andrew Ferguson, published by Simon & Schuster, New York, N.Y. copyright 2011 Andrew Ferguson. Reprinted by permission of the author and Writers' Representatives LLC.

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, April 2011.

 

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