18 August 2012


A few years ago, when she was getting ready to enter high school, my eldest daughter began considering applying to the elite girls' school that I had attended in New York City.  My daughter is dyslexic; we have known about and have been dealing with the dyslexia since she was in preschool.  Though her academic career got a slow and bumpy start, by eighth grade she was an outstanding student, bright, creative, and talented.  There was no reason why she shouldn't explore all her options.

While I was a stay-at-home mom, I had dedicated a significant chunk of my free time to volunteering on behalf of my high school.  I was class secretary, which involved corresponding with my classmates on a regular basis and compiling those once-yearly columns that appear at the back of the alumnae magazine, detailing what everyone has been up to over the past year.  I also volunteered in the archive room at the school for a few years, spending one day a week filing and organizing under the watchful and friendly supervision of the school's professional archivist and historian.  I was an active and involved alumna, and I wrote and spoke enthusiastically about the school and the important role it had played in my life.

When the time came for Sarah to apply, I picked up the phone and called the admissions office.  "My daughter will be submitting an application this fall for entry into the ninth grade next year," I told the admissions director.  "Can we set up a time for her to visit the school?"

"Not yet.  The first step," the admissions director said, "is for her to take the SSAT [Secondary Schools Admission Test, a standardized test required by all the elite New York private schools].  Have the scores reported to us as soon as possible, and when we receive them, we'll be in touch with you about whether she should go ahead and submit an application."

Whether she should submit an application?  Of course she was going to submit an application.  I arranged for her to take the test, and I had the scores sent to the school, as I had been instructed.  After a few days, I got a call from the admissions director.

"Her scores are not as high as we'd like to see," the director told me.

"Well," I replied, "she is dyslexic, so standardized test scores are not really the best indicator of how she performs in a classroom.  Once you get her application and have a chance to meet her, I think you'll be impressed."

"I'm actually going to advise you not to apply," the director said.  "I don't think this school would be a good fit for her."

"You're making that decision based on one test score?  You haven't even met her.  Wouldn't it make sense to have her visit the school and meet you before ruling it out completely?"

"No.  She's not likely to be admitted, so there's no point in bringing her in for a day and setting her up for disappointment.  We'd be happy to meet with you and discuss some other options that might be better suited to her."

I was surprised and hurt, and as the news settled in, I even became a little angry.  All that time and effort, all those dreams of passing the tradition along, were for nothing.  My daughter was not a number, but numbers were all the school cared about.  We went ahead and applied to some other elite private schools, and she was admitted to several of them, but they did not hold the pull for me that my own alma mater had.  In the end, we decided to send her to our own local public high school, one of the top three in the state.  She has excelled there.  Her grade point average puts her near the top of her class, and she is planning on taking AP English during her senior year, which begins in a few weeks.  (If you are familiar with dyslexia, you can appreciate what an accomplishment it is for a student with that particular challenge to participate in an AP English class.)

We have spent the last few months putting together a list of colleges to which Sarah will be applying for next year.  The list includes several highly competitive schools, some of which we have visited and toured in the past few weeks as we try to make use of the free time we have before school starts.  We have discovered that, with the exception of a very few of the most competitive schools to which she plans to apply, college admissions are "test optional."

"Test optional" means that a school does not require a student to submit, as part of his or her application, scores on the SAT or ACT (the traditional standardized tests that are used by colleges and universities to evaluate academic potential).  As one college admissions officer put it, "I'd ask you to send me your scores if you think they will tell me something about you that is not otherwise apparent from your application.  If they will help me make a decision about whether to admit you, I'd like to see them. If you do not think they will be helpful to me, then send something else that will."

Even the colleges that require test scores are very circumspect about the role the scores play in their decisions.  When questioned, admissions officers deny having a minimum cutoff score, are reluctant to divulge the average scores of admitted students, and are quick to turn the direction of the conversation elsewhere.  As I compiled a list of application deadlines this morning, I noted that none of the college websites I peeked at contained any information about the test scores of admitted students.

I am delighted to see this movement away from reliance on test scores.  Though my daughter has taken the SAT twice to date and has done quite well, several of her contemporaries have scored poorly and, as a result, are starting to judge themselves.  "I'm not going to be able to apply to any good schools," I overheard one of them saying.  Another - a talented and promising young person - is actually toying with the idea of not going to college at all.  It absolutely distresses me to see 17- and 18-year-olds writing themselves off based on an objective criterion that may or may not have anything to do with their chances of success in life.

Every college I have visited, "test optional" or not, has emphasized to me the importance of considering the whole student, and all of his or her accomplishments, in making admissions decisions.  I applaud that approach, and I hope the young people I know will take seriously the schools' pledges to follow it.  These young people are at a crossroads in their lives, making decisions about their own education that will have a tremendous impact on the adults they will become.  No single number should rob them of their ability to make that decision.


jhl said...

There's also a movement towards more holistic assessment in college, though it's giving colleges quite a challenge, because holistic assessment requires a lot more individual attention and time than a multiple choice test does. When I left my last position, I was working with people on an eportfolio system that I'd hoped would become the four-year data collection tool. It's still not very accepted by the faculty, unfortunately.

But: baby steps.

Ann said...

A dear and brilliant friend of mine wrote her masters' thesis on standardized tests and the SAT in particular. I remember that she told me that the SAT a no better a predictor of a student's success in college than the pH in his/her urine. And, if I recall correctly, her thesis was persuasive in the University of California system's move away from reliance on the SAT.

I was the opposite of your daughter. I excelled at standardized tests. As a result, I knew that I could cure a not great grade or two by an excellent test score. That knowledge was not a good influence on my behavior.

Liene said...

My high school taught a test-taking course that was less about knowing the material and more about how to guess well... and I was lucky to get even that.

ps There's a little sunshine for you over at Femme au Foyer today!

Rev. K.T. said...

What a wonderful movement! I wonder if the high schools are aware of this?! In an age where public schools are "teaching to the test" this is a breath of fresh air!

By the way, the little elf was admitted into the Pre-AP science class. I'm still not sure of what I think of tracking kids that early, but I am grateful not to have to fight that battle any more this year.

Any name said...

AAARRRGGGHHH!! Number make me nuts!! I'm visually impaired, so lengthy standardized tests are hell on earth. I took my SATs during a school day with a proctor. Then I had to go back to the last two periods of the day. I was a useless puddle. I scored a 1080 (old scoring system). My mother wanted me to retake them. I told her that any college that judged me solely on my SATs was not a place I wanted to be (this was the 80's by the way).

I was admitted all the colleges to which I applied. I made Penn State Main Campus as a freshman (a rarity in those days) and I was admitted to Boston College.

When I came time for grad school I was pursuing a M.Ed. and I only looked at schools that would accept the miller analogy test. I refused to take the GMATs.

I'm really excited about this trend of whole student evaluation. Hopefully as my kids (who have the same visual impairment) apply to college they'll be judged on all of their work.

P.S. I would have applied anyway just for the pleasure of saying "Oh, gee, thanks, but no." because you know she would have gotten in. :)

Enid Bite'Em said...

Hi Jennie,

I'm dropping by from POTMC. This post made me sad; unfortunately, Australia has a long way to go in this area. Selection for most uni courses is based on point-scores (there are some interviews, but if you don't have the point score you don't cut it) ... it's against best-practice research (I'm a high-school teacher) and it makes hardly any sense to me - it channels students into choosing courses and unis, not based on what they want to do, but what they achieved the marks for ... and the best predictor of success in most of the studies I have read is how creative the student is (students who had imaginary friends as a child are very likely to do well!, although there are still some creative types who did not have them ). It sounds like your daughter is better off somewhere else, but such a shame when you have such strong ties there.

Jane said...

Gosh Jennie, what a tale to tell! I'm so pleased that Sarah found somewhere else to allow her to excel. That all seems light years away for me at the moment, though! Thanks for linking up with the POTMC. J x