The Superintendent Takes the SAT

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On the first Saturday in June, I woke from a restful night's sleep, ate a good breakfast and dressed in comfortable jeans and a baggy shirt. I headed off to join thousands of high school students in a rite of adolescent academic passage, taking the SAT I: Reasoning Test, the most common college-entrance examination in the United States. As I joined the long line of students, mostly juniors, at Somerville (N.J.) High School, I had all the required equipment: sharpened No. 2 pencils with good erasers, an approved calculator, my admission ticket, and a picture ID. I did not have food, a radio, nor a timing device with an alarm. I was carefully following the directions of the Educational Testing Service of Princeton, N.J., which writes and administers the SAT for the College Board.

There were only a few things that distinguished me from the other test-takers that day: I am 54 years old. I have a master's degree in English and taught that subject for 20 years. And, finally, I am the superintendent of schools in Saddle Brook, N.J. Saddle Brook is a working-class community located in Bergen County, one of the wealthiest regions of both New Jersey and the nation. But our section of the county does not share that affluence. Unfortunately, the district has historically achieved SAT scores significantly below the state and national averages. We can do much better.

When I committed myself to the folly of taking this test, I collected the application from a guidance counselor. He was incredulous: "Are you really gonna do this?" I was, and began the ritual that took me back many years. They asked about my high school experience. I wasn't doing anything against the rules, so I admitted that I took the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test in 1957, but I really did not know how to answer, "When do you expect to graduate from high school?"

There are very few calm days in the life of a superintendent, so why would I willingly, even eagerly, subject myself to taking a grueling three-hour examination? It is perhaps that I urge the staff of the Saddle Brook schools to focus on SAT skills and proudly reported an 11-point increase in our 1994 mean SAT score and even more proudly, a 21-point increase in 1995. I wanted to know and feel what I was asking teachers and students to do. But of equal importance, the public judges our schools, fairly or unfairly, by the scores on this test. Each time parents write a check to the Princeton Review or Kaplan Educational Centers or some other test-preparation company, they are casting a vote of "no confidence" in the public schools.

I was given a copy of "Taking the SAT I: Reasoning Test," the College Board's official information booklet. Just as I suspect our students do, I let the booklet languish on my desk at home until the week before the test. Then I took a large portion of one afternoon over Memorial Day weekend to study the directions and suggestions. The following morning, I cloistered myself with a kitchen timer and took the sample test. The results were not a disaster, so I felt fairly confident. But I tried to imagine how a high school junior whose hopes and dreams hinged on this test would feel. It wouldn't be good, I assure you. Fortunately, students can take the test several times and study in between.

I knew that nothing depended on my score, and that it could forever remain a secret between the ETS and me, but I was still anxious to do my best, to prove myself on this field of academic battle. And while I felt very comfortable with my vocabulary and ability to read effectively, it has been well over 30 years since I took algebra or geometry. On the practice test, I was not able to solve any except the most simple equations, but I was able to do the quantitative comparisons. My strength in English about balanced out my weakness in math.

On test day, I was assigned to Room 103. The proctor looked quizzically at me as I entered, but directed me to take the next available desk of the 60 that were crowded into the large, light, and warm room. The teenagers noticed me too, and I imagined them wondering what this "old bag" was doing, yet they were polite. I wondered if the proctor thought I might be a plant from the ETS, monitoring testing conditions. But he too remained cool, saying nothing.

It was about five minutes after 8 a.m., even though the wall clock said 4:05. It is the elapsed time that matters during the test. All of us were able to make the conversion as we watched the hands of the clock circle ominously toward the start, and then the end, of each of the seven sections of the test. The room remained hushed all morning. The few times I looked up, students were bent over their answer sheets or working intently on their calculators. Each time I stopped at the end of a section, some students had finished before me. I completed the math earlier than the verbal. It is worse to guess at random than to skip an item. I skipped quite a few of the math.

The reading and vocabulary include analogies designed to determine not only knowledge of the words, but also the connections between them. A second item type involves one- and two-word sentence completions. Some of these merely ask for the word in context. The real little devils, however, require that two words be placed in the correct two blanks of a sentence. In selecting an answer, you are drawn to a word that fits into the first blank only to find that its companion makes no sense in blank two.

The SAT reading is exactly the kind done in college: rigorous and informative, but sometimes dry, or as the kids would say, "boring!" The test has three reading-comprehension items and a paired passage which demands a comparison and contrast of ideas from two writers. My readings included a double selection on science and a sociological discussion of women's roles. To me, these were interesting, but I read the dictionary for entertainment. However, if students can synthesize information, locate main ideas, and remember details and determine their significance, they will have mastered the primary skills necessary for collegiate success.

This test of endurance was over at high noon. My contact lenses were fogged from the intense concentration. We almost never give high school students a testing experience like this one. And yet, it has a major effect on their future.

So, what have I learned? There is nothing inappropriate about the content of the SAT. (Please note, however, that I am not attempting to address the questions of bias. That's another whole area of research.) What I do believe is that students who are going to do well in college need to have a strong vocabulary, the ability to read with perception, and the ability to think mathematically.

Words are the basic tools of the thinking process. Yes, there is a difference between "perplexed" and "bewildered." We need to be able to read and understand these subtleties of vocabulary, as well as the meanings that are created by the way a writer shapes sentences and paragraphs, to read more than one point of view and to draw conclusions from the mating of the two. We need to be able to decide what is true and what is false, what is propaganda and what is reasoned and factual. We need to know how to read a geometric figure. Being constantly bombarded with data, we must understand it. We need to think abstractly. Schools would do no harm and a great deal of good if these skills were included in what we expect all students to know when they graduate from high school.

I am not unfamiliar with the statistics asserting that the strongest predictor of high scores on the SAT is having parents who are both college graduates earning a family income well above the national average. But aren't the public schools supposed to level the playing field so that all children have a shot at moving up the ladder? Do you have to be at the top to get to the top? Why don't some educators believe they can teach students what they need to know to earn high scores on the SAT? Commercial ventures are earning big profits on the idea that they can teach these things. Saddle Brook's demographics make it a lot like most of America, an ideal community in which to test the ideals of our educational theories.

Schools and teachers and public education can, and must, make a difference. Can we teach the content of the SAT within the confines of our current curricular structure? Probably. But we will also need to be sure that we do not shrink from challenging all students and not assume that they cannot achieve if they don't come from Scarsdale or Oak Park or Palo Alto or the other affluent communities of our country.

How did I do? Well, about a month after I took the test, a rather innocuous envelope with the return address of the College Board arrived in the mail. This was the moment of truth. I didn't have to open it, and when I did, I didn't have to tell anyone. No admissions officer would be able to snicker at these numbers. I hesitated. But of course, I had to know. And there it was, a perfect 800 on the verbal test. My math score was 460, not exactly great. However, with a combined score of 1260 out of a possible 1600, I could be considered for admission to many fine schools.

A little later this summer, the district's scores also arrived. The graduating class of 1996 earned a mean score 32 points above the 1995 one. Our 64-point increase over three years leaves us only a few points below the state average, and confirms that the district is making real progress. As I looked at the achievement of the junior class, I am convinced that with continued effort, we will show even greater score improvement. And this is primarily within the confines of our regular instructional program. Although we have offered an annual half-day program in test awareness and an occasional consultant to work with teachers and/or students, the bulk of our instructional efforts have been in the normal classes students would have taken anyway.

What will I do? I will continue to stress high-quality instruction and rich education. I will let students, teachers, and the community know we can achieve at the same levels earned by more-affluent communities where there is a tradition of success. I might even decide to sit for the test again, after a little prep on algebra and geometry.

I wonder if the National Merit Scholarship Corp. still has those old PSAT/NMSQT scores? Think I can get some scholarship money?

Vol. 16, Issue 12, Pages 34, 36

Published in Print: November 20, 1996, as The Superintendent Takes the SAT
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