Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Downfall of Today's Educational System

As I sat in the testing room at my high school on Sunday, April 14th, I was overcome with an array of emotions. Following a brief, anxiety-filled breakdown, I settled down, only to be shocked at what I felt next. I felt angry. I’m sitting there, my proctor reading off the instructions for the ACT, and I am in awe at the fact that my most prominent emotion is anger. Being a short-tempered kid, a flash of anger is no rare occurrence. However, this anger was far different than any I had experienced in the past.

I was not angry because I had to wake up at 8 in the morning to take a grueling exam. I was not angry because I had poured a bowl of cereal earlier that morning to find that there was no milk left in the refrigerator (though that is one of the most dejecting feelings on earth). I wasn’t even angry at the fact that the only two bathrooms in the building weren’t functioning. I was angry because I felt cheated. I was overcome with this nausea-inducing notion that my father was being cheated out of an 80,000 dollar, private-school education. I felt cheated because I have been working my ass off in high school for the last two and a half years to ensure that I am sucking everything I can out of my education, yet my future ultimately comes down to a single test on just four subjects. I felt like the 10-hour school days, the countless nights struggling to stay awake for the sake of memorizing one more fact, the misery, it was all for nothing. I felt that my work ethic was being discredited and that my classroom abilities were not being fairly represented.

Let’s talk about how I got here. In 9th grade, I was surely not what one would call studios. I cared more about the newest episode of South Park than I did what test I had the following afternoon. I neglected homework, screwed around, and couldn’t have cared less while doing so. When the middle of freshman year came around, I was rudely awoken. All of those around me were constantly chirping in my ear, making it abundantly clear that I was squandering my potential. I learned that, if I wanted to advance my education, I would have to accept the fact that I was going to have to approach school more seriously. I had no problem doing so. In fact, I enjoyed doing so. Obtaining new information went from a burden, to a hobby. Gone were the days when TV took priority over school work. Gone were the days when learning was a dreaded affair. By the conclusion of freshman year, I had turned myself into a studious student in every sense of the word. I write this now as a Junior. Since my rude awakening, I have achieved nearly straight A’s in all honors and AP courses.

The point of all of this is simple. I had no problem with realizing that I would have to put forth more effort in the classroom if I wanted to be something noteworthy. I had no problem paying more attention in class. I had no problem completing my homework, quality work, in a timely manner. Where the problem came in was around the end of 10th grade. Summer was looming, AP courses were coming to a close, and the forecast called for a jolly-good, stress free break from school. Or so I thought. As most high schoolers were out celebrating their first day of freedom, I was sifting through the SAT and ACT preparatory books at The Booksellers. You see, some time before my sophomore year concluded, my guidance counselor calmly walked into a room full of my peers, and promptly scared the hell out of us. I consider my freshman year awakening a rude one, but this one was beyond any single adjective. This awakening left me feeling like Wile E. Coyote had just dropped a 500 pound piano on my hopes and dreams. My guidance counselor stressed the importance of preparing for what she called Standardized Tests. Now, I had knowledge of these tests previous to this conversation, but I had never truly understood how much was riding on them. It’s my future, if you didn’t know. My future is riding on a single test. For a brief moment, I felt apprehensive and terrified, but those feelings quickly passed. Summer was near and the time to deal with Standardized Tests would come.

When the time did come, my apprehension turned to what I was feeling on the 14th: anger. I sat down in a classroom at The Ramaz School in New York City for my first shot at the SAT. I felt relatively confident as I flipped open the first page of the test. Some hours and many sections later, suffice it to say that I no longer felt confident. I felt that my life plans had just been derailed by a single poor performance on one gigantically important test. At that point I had already come to grips with the fact that there was no way to avoid the satanic system that is Standardized Testing. I figured that I could manage to pull out a score well beyond the national average, hoping that would be enough to get me into my college of choice. What I didn’t expect was to be distracted by slow, terrifying ticks of the clock at the front of the room. What I didn’t expect was to be so rushed, so pressured, to finish under time constraints. Though I disagree, one could make the argument that Standardized Testing is an accurate way to assess my intellectual abilities. If, hypothetically, in some deranged universe, this were the case, why must we also be timed? Why must we be placed under such immense pressure? A college course is just that. It’s a course. It’s a class that takes place over the course of an academic year. It’s not a 30 minute course, with the exam being an assessment of your reasoning abilities. If, by some long shot, you were able to convince me of the legitimacy of the Standardized Testing system, I can assure you that I would never go as far as to agree that the timing aspect of these tests is another method of accurately depicting college readiness. To say that time constraints are meant to depict how you work under pressure is, in a sense, logical. However, it is next to moronic in a practical sense. A college student under the constant weight of stress has the ability to develop the correct work ethic, to balance his or her workload in a way that they will have more than sufficient time to accomplish all of their academic goals. Unless there is thirty minutes until the end of the world, no student will forcibly be placed in a situation in which they must perform in such a short amount of time.

This leads me to my next point. My work ethic is superb. The quality of my classwork/homework exceeds expectations. My test scores are through the roof. My scheduling abilities are, I must say, quite impressive. Is there a section on the SAT that evaluates work ethic? Oh, no? There isn’t? No. There isn’t. Is there one on the ACT that does? Oh, what a surprise! There isn’t. After all, what makes a good student? Is it raw, underdeveloped intelligence? Is it the ability to work under unrealistically short time constraints? Or is it a steady work ethic that ensures above-average performance. Standardized Tests fail to account for the confounding variables that contribute to a student’s performance. These tests, they are nothing more than an overhyped shortcut. They are the most convenient methods of (what some may call) assessing (what some may call) intelligence or reasoning. Give them whatever acronym you would like. Test any subject you would like. Choose any time constraints you would like. That doesn’t make them legitimate. That doesn’t make them a fair assessment of what a college-ready student truly is.

I understand that there are different ways to determine one’s college readiness. I know that, as part of the college application process, you submit resumes highlighting your extracurricular accomplishments. As much as I would love for the majority of schools to primarily focus on this, along with the college essay, this is not how things are. When it comes down to it, those with the higher Standardized Test scores are the ones getting into the top tier schools. Those with the unbelievable work ethic whose Standardized Testing performances are, unfortunately, being hindered by any variety of factors are the ones who must compromise their dreams and attend lower tier schools. Those who have the capacity to handle a traditional, rigorous curriculum, they are robbed of the education they deserve. Of course, there are many who work extremely hard to achieve a high score on Standardized Tests. I am in no way discounting their work ethic; in fact, I am commending it. That being said, there are also those who are not as serious, not as devoted to the expansion of knowledge, but are unshaken by time constraints and are able to perform on tests of raw intelligence; they are the ones stealing what others deserve. As John Locke stated, we are all born with a tabula rasa. Those students aren’t born thieves. Their thievery is developed. Their thievery is not only accepted, but it is encouraged by today’s educational system. Standardized Tests serve as both a public endorsement of thievery, as well as an aid to it.

There is no telling what my final results will be on my Standardized Test of choice. I will work to improve my score because I have, albeit uneasily, come to grips with the fact that a high score is the only way I can achieve my goal of getting into a top tier college. I have come to grips with the fact that I do tend to underperform under time constraints. I do tend to underperform on these tests because I do not possess the kind of raw intelligence that said thieves do. What makes me a top-notch student, what makes me every teacher’s dream, is my impeccable work ethic and my everlasting love for the expansion of knowledge. The fact that those attributes, my personal favorite attributes, are ignored is nothing short of a travesty.

So yes, I am pissed off. I don’t want to prepare for another tragedy. Even if I end up with a 1600 or a 36, I won’t feel as if my intelligence was accurately assessed. Even if I open up an acceptance letter from Harvard, I will still feel cheated. I will still feel that everything I worked for in my four years of high school meant nothing. What’s even worse, I will feel like a thief, aided by an unjust, unacceptable educational system.

There are millions of more thieves to come if something doesn’t change.

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