Chapter 3: SAT Game Day

Note:  This essay is the third and last in a three part series on retaking the SAT test.  Please refer to SAT I and SAT II for the complete SAT experience.

October 9th, 2010 – SAT game day for me. I turn to the chapter in my prep book that gives me very detailed instructions on what to do just prior to the test:

“On the night before the BIG DAY, find a diversion to keep yourself from obsessing about the SAT. Maybe stay home and watch some of your favorite television shows … Or talk for hours and hours on the phone about a subject other than the SAT … In the morning take a shower to wake up and then eat a sensible breakfast. If you don’t usually eat breakfast, don’t gorge yourself on test day, because it will be a shock to your system … Make sure that you bring at least three number 2 pencils and bring the calculator that you are most comfortable with … Wear layered clothing … Bring a fortifying snack.”

I try to follow their advice to the letter; my only deviation is to take my shower the night before. Fortunately, our house is well stocked with No. 2 pencils, since the previous Christmas Nick had broken our vow not to exchange gifts and had given me a gross of pencils to do Soduku with. But I have noticed that some of them have defective leads, and so after sharpening, I test the lead to make sure that it doesn’t jiggle like a loose tooth. Two pencils are rejected on this basis. Next I test the erasers to make sure that I won’t be cursed with one of those inexplicable erasers that produces a smudgy streak, thus tragically despoiling my SAT answer sheet. I eliminate another pencil on this basis. Now for the calculator. Forty years ago there was no such thing, but perhaps we were allowed to bring a slide rule or abacus. The only calculator I have ever used is the oversized one Nick uses to balance the checkbook, so I throw that in my bookbag.

It turns out that the testing center is across the prairie that abuts our backyard, then across the railroad tracks to a little trail in the woods that opens up onto the high school driveway. So the most efficient way for me to get there is to ride my bike, which seems very appropriate for this high school experience. I have to carry my bike across the railroad tracks, and I carefully make sure that there is no oncoming train – a fatal mistake that a student made last year in this very spot. As I circle into the school, I see large minivans dropping students off, but no bike rack. I finally ask a security guard and he looks at me quizzically and says, “Don’t you know, students don’t ride bikes any more, we don’t have any racks.”

At this point I am feeling very silly, and it occurs to me that I could have reduplicated this experience by taking a timed test at home using a practice test. However, I also want to experience the anxiety and energy of the mix of students – those with poor grades whose parents are hoping for impressive SATs so that they can confidently say, “Her teachers just don’t get her – those who need top SAT scores to fulfill their parents’ aspirations for their Ivy League alma mater (especially since an early promise on the soccer field did not pan out) – those whose parents risked stigmatization to identify a subtle learning disability adequate to qualify for extra time – those juiced on juiced Adderall – and those effortlessly brilliant students where the SAT is an unnecessary footnote to an already glittering academic career. But when I walk into the room, I feel none of that. My fellow test-takers merely look resigned to spending three hours on a gorgeous fall morning slogging through irrelevant math problems and tedious passages.

The room is deathly quiet and then the proctor stands up and starts reading instructions in a nasal monotone reminiscent of Ferris Bueller, “Good morning, Welcome to the SAT, where you will have the opportunity to show your readiness for college.” I find it very audacious for the College Board to attempt to position the SAT as an “opportunity,” as if this hated test is a privilege rather than a dreaded imposition. The proctor goes on to explain the various features of the upcoming lock-down mode and then instructs us to fill in the answer sheet with our name and other identifying information. During my practice test, I had noticed my biggest liability was careless errors due to impatience, so I decide that I will practice patience by carefully checking over my name, birthday and testing center. Unbelievably, I find two careless errors. I had spelled my name wrong, by mistaking a “Q” for an “O” in the very faintly printed boxes, and I had keyed in my birthday incorrectly, by assuming that the first number in the grid should be a “1” and not a “0,” thus indicating that I had been born 1058 years ago in 952 instead of 1952. Not an auspicious beginning.

First off we have 25 minutes to write an essay on whether or not funding for the arts should be maintained in high schools. I think of the thousands of students writing on this exact same question and the squads of high school and college English teachers who have to read them all, a seemingly excruciating task, particularly since the essay is graded according to grammar, punctuation and organization, and not necessarily creativity. But I have great faith in creativity. One of our favorite family games is the dictionary game, where a word that no one knows is selected and everyone makes up a plausible definition. A single word prompt like “dapifer” can produce such definitions as “someone who spread rumors on a sinking ship,” an “African parasite,” or an “ex-slave converted to Islam.” While the constraints of the SAT are designed to suck the life out of creativity, I hope that occasionally it can still peek through. If I were grading the essays, I would immediately give a top score to anyone who could rise above the straight laced requirements of the SAT and show even a glimmer of creativity. I decide to write my essay on imagination as the defining element of the human brain, and to dismiss the arts is to squander nature’s gifts of our precious frontal lobes.

And then off we go into the multiple choice questions. I get hit with a math section right out of the box, and about half way through I encounter an inane problem about calculating the total number of hours studied based on the average number of hours studied per week across different years of high school. I recognize that they are really testing me on my ability to read a table and translate average hours per week to total hours per year (factoring in holidays), but I find the context so utterly stupid that I make the executive decision that I am too old for this, and I just skip the question – first time ever that I have ever deliberately skipped a question on a multiple choice test. Then there is a grammar section, where I am given four different options to correct a poorly written sentence. I immediately get frustrated because I I know that I can come up with a fifth option that is much better. At our break, I realize that about 90% of the students taking the test are Asian, and that English is their second language. I am immediately impressed that they can master arcane English grammar.

I am pumped and ready after our break, because I think that my sweet spot – vocabulary – must be next. There are a few vocabulary questions, and then I plunge into reading comprehension – a very long paragraph on some crack pot idea called “Pleistocene Rewilding,” where African elephants would be introduced to the United States as a stand in for Woolly Mammoths. Section after section, and there is only a smattering of vocabulary. I sadly realize that vocabulary is no longer a prime focus of the SATs. Another couple of math sections where I feel very naughty in wantonly skipping questions I don’t like – then finally, “Time’s up, put your pencils down.”

So how did I do? Who knows, particularly since there are multiple possibilities for humiliation. I could have made have additional spelling errors on my last name, misaligned my answers on the answer sheet, could have been reckless and careless, or maybe I naively assumed that I could relearn long forgotten math skills. Maybe I peaked at age 18.

The missing words in the following poem are all anagrams (i.e. share the same letters like post, stop, spot).  One of the anagrams is at the end of a line and will rhyme with either the previous or following line, giving you a big hint.  Your job is to solve the missing words based on the context of the poem.  Scroll down below for the answers.

I had this unrealistic hope that if I stayed focused and didn’t flub,

I could wear the SAT – – – – – – of greatness in the 1600 club.

But careless mistakes have been my undoing and – – – – – –

That have always undermined my most noble intent.

I clearly don’t have the patience to win this – – – – – – game

Particularly if I can’t even spell my own last name.

Mantle, lament, mental

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