The emphasis placed on numbers — getting a certain score, studying only to do well on a test — often extends far beyond classroom walls. Grades, scores and statistics permeate the daily lives of many TPHS students.
“I wasn’t allowed to go to Prom last year because I didn’t score above 750 on my SAT subject test,” Katie Qian (11) said. “So many Chinese parents insist that their kids retake the SAT until they have a certain score, or punish their kids for not getting a certain grade in a class.”
Since the release of the Oct. 5 SAT scores, students have been identifying themselves on a scale of 1 to 2400, fervently discussing retakes and proudly shouting scores across the halls. According to the College Board website, the SAT “tests the skills [students are] learning in school and how they can apply those skills,” but Ryan Hund (11), who chose not to take the SAT, doesn’t think it can accurately assess and quantify the extent of his knowledge.
“[Most multiple choice tests] are not there to test how much you learned; they’re not there to test how capable you are of applying the skills you learned in class,” Hund said. “How much you’re actually learning is something that can’t be quantified into a grade.”
The SAT is not the only test Hund and others like him are protesting. Advanced Placement, or AP classes are for students who have “curiosity, creativity and commitment” to and about certain subjects, according to the College Board, but in some classes there is increasing emphasis on the weighted grade and AP test. AP Psychology teacher Chas Doerrer said many students take AP Psychology solely to prepare for the test, so he structures his curriculum around AP test preparation.
“I wanted to take [AP Psychology] because I’m very interested in psychology and the mind,” Alexandra Kiselyov (11) said. “I was kind of disappointed when I heard [that the class is sometimes focused on test preparation]. I think that it’s important to have a test for subjects like math and history, but there is a lot more to psychology than five choices on a question.”
Kiselyov said some of her classmates are more concerned with their grades than with learning and do the minimum amount of work needed, often cramming for a test and forgetting the information immediately after. Tyla Sass (11), who moved to the United States from Australia last year is equally put off by the “cram and jam” mentality. Sass said Australian students are given the Tertiary Entrance Exam, which is “much, much easier than the SAT,” so standardized test scores are not as essential to future success.
“There is so much more competition here,” Sass said. “[In Australia], everybody gets into college and has the opportunity to go to the same school as everyone else.”
Sass said that grades are “much less important” in Australian schools, and the grades themselves are easier to achieve — a 75 or 80 percent could be counted as an A in the Australian system. She prefers the Australian standardized testing system, but says that the level of competition in the United States motivates her to put effort into her work, especially since grades and test scores “are so important here.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the National Higher Education Entrance Exam, commonly known as gaokao, is required by many universities in China, and is so influential that students find it unfair if they are not allowed to cheat. In June 2013, students in Zhongxiang rioted after they 54 randomly drafted proctors were brought in to supervise the test rather than their teachers. The proctors were trapped inside the school building, which was surrounded by over 2,000 students and parents chanting, “We want fairness; there is no fairness if you do not let us cheat,” according to the [London]Telegraph.
Qian said that since there is pressure to earn high grades both in China and in the United States, students are often willing to take any measure necessary to achieve their goals, though Qian does not put herself in that category. Hund agrees, saying that the drive to “give yourself a label with a higher number than someone else” changes the focus from actual education to playing into the system.
“When you have an end result that’s comprised of lots of steps for getting into college, the sudents are coming in with the expectation of ‘Well, I could learn in all of my classes, but it doesn’t matter as long as I get an A,’” Hund said. “That changes the focus from ‘I need to learn to be successful’ to ‘I need an A, so I can get into college.”
However, University of California, Los Angeles admissions counselor Kelly Hathaway said that grades and test scores are “a great way for admissions offices to estimate the potential of a student.”
“We receive a large volume of applications every year, and it is easier to preliminarily separate applicants by GPA and SAT score,” Hathaway said. “This way we can give more time to applicants who are academically prepared for college-level courses. We find that most of the time, there are extremely few students who have lower grades, but are prepared for a college environment.”
Conversely, Bard College offer s the option of an alternative essay application that “gives students a tasting of college-level work,” according to Director of Admissions Mary Backlund. Students have from Oct. 1 to Jan. 1 to write four essays on topics ranging from politics and science to math and songwriting. Applicants are allowed to consult reference materials and are provided with all the reading material needed to answer the questions. A B+ on the essays guarantees acceptance to Bard regardless of GPA or SAT scores. According to Backlund, Bard has not required standardized test scores for a long time.
“You can’t determine much about a student’s capability from one test of multiple choice questions and one 25-minute essay,” Backlund said. “This application gives students a chance to be engaged in the application, be creative and even to have fun. The questions require intellectual horsepower to solve. They cause people to think.”
This ability to think, Backlund says, is more indicative of intelligence than “the ability to choose one prewritten answer.” Backlund believes that there is “so much more to a student than the number of AP classes they [are] enrolled in or their SAT score.”
Hund says this is a much more effective way of evaluating students: assessing not just what they have learned, but also their ability to apply that knowledge in solving a problem.
“The skills that people will be applying to [the essays] are skills that are representative of more than writing,” Hund said. “Writing at its basic level is a way to express understanding in a way that a short answer question or a multiple choice question couldn’t do.”
And in case you’re wondering, Bard is the No. 15 school on the Forbes magazine “grateful grad” list of 50 U.S. colleges with the top return on investment.
by Anna Li