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Learning at its Best

I took the PSAT’s…again!

Well, the title of this post isn’t exactly true.  Actually, I last took the Practice Scholastic Aptitude Test (PSAT) about 27 years ago.  Scoring well on this test is an important step towards qualifying for the National Merit Scholarship (weird process, talk about privileging the already privileged!)

So when my 14 year old son came home from school with a booklet, “The Official Student’s Guide to the PSAT/NMSQT – with sample test enclosed.”  My curiosity was piqued.  Late at night I snuck downstairs and took the sample test.  And, despite my abhorrence and disdain for this type of high -stakes standardized test, I have to admit I kind of enjoyed it – at least the math sections.  I liked puzzling out the solutions, in much the same way I can get into solving a crossword puzzle or a Sodoku.  And I further enjoyed smirking to myself as I saw the hidden traps that the test designers had embedded into the questions and the multiple choice solutions, laying in wait for the student who carelessly misreads a question or misses a key phrase.  Mean spirited perhaps, but kinda’ fun in a twisted way.  Observing my own thought processes, I can see why I might have done well at this 27 years back.

Then I got to the verbal portion of the test and my experience changed dramatically.  (Cue the “Empire Theme” from the Star Wars soundtrack)   I found that I was having to reread passages and questions several times.  Nothing was making sense and my anxiety was rising as I realized that if these portions of the test were being timed, as they were supposed to be, I would have bombed, big time!

Later as I reflected on the experience of my no-stakes test-taking experience, a number of realizations came to mind.  First, I really think that the reason I struggled with the “Critical Reading” (that’s actually what they call it!  Amazing what passes for “critical.”) sections, was the way my mind worked.  In Math, for whatever reason, I was able to approach a problem, attack it and then immediately discard it – put it entirely out of my mind and go on to the next.  But in Reading, I was simply too engaged.  I found that I was still processing the previous passage while I should have been focusing on the next.  It was also very difficult for me to extract key pieces while disregarding the significance of the whole passage.  It was an irritating process and it made me feel sluggish and inept.  It also reminded me of the fact that I’m just a slow reader – always have been.

One example -which I think I can allude to obliquely even though the cover of my booklet clearly says in bold letters – “Unauthorized reproduction or use of any part of this test is prohibited!”  There is an eight paragraph-long essay summarizing the preface of a 2004 report by the National Endowment for the Arts called “Reading at Risk.”  Believe me as I read this essay I could not just stay detached and look to extract key vocabulary or implied meaning or whatever was being asked (any follower of the Co-op would have had the same challenges, I’m sure.)  As I read this excerpt, my mind reeled with outrage, sadness, critical analysis, etc.  It was a passage with which I wanted to engage deeply, examine hidden assumptions, begin to deconstruct and unpack.  But none of this kind of engagement was allowed if I hoped to be a successful test-taker.  Other passages were similar in this way; they were actually interesting, but I had to fight against my inclination to take an interest.

In the end, I am left pondering what is meant by the phrase “scholastic aptitude” that this test purports to measure.  I looked on the College Board website and the phrase is not mentioned or defined anywhere that I could see.  In fact the primary skills necessary to be successful it seemed was the ability to filter and sift, to not look at wholes but rather isolate fragments.  To be successful in this arena it is necessary to completely dissociate yourself from the meaning or impact of the text and simply process it in a highly impersonal and technical way.  In fact this test seems to penalize holistic thinking, deep thinking and caring.  You must be able to engage with the material only at the most superficial level, ready to eradicate the isolated encounter immediately and thoroughly so you can proceed with the next item instantaneously and unfettered.

How bizarre.  Is that ability to process material without connection, without allowing it to sully your “clean” analytic indifferent perspective, is that what it means to have a scholastic aptitude?  Are these skills what are necessary for a successful college experience?  Career?  Life?  Really?

Add this realization to other obvious values embedded in the test: there is one right answer; don’t take time to consider multiple perspectives; don’t try to think creatively; don’t collaborate or even think about human others; don’t connect these questions to your personal experiences; don’t relate material to a sense of place or ecology; no time for mindfulness; Compassion? Irrelevant; Insight? Useless; Innovation? Puh-leeze; Communication? Um, just fill in the bubbles – and mind the stray marks; etc, etc.  In short the test represents nearly everything I hate about mainstream standardized education.

So, I wonder if my son will take the test (very likely) and what our conversations will be like before and after, assuming he does.

About Paul Freedman

I am the founding Director of The Salmonberry School in Eastsound, WA. I have taught elementary school in public and private settings for the past 19 years. I serve as a contributing editor for Encounter: Education for Meaning and Social Justice (Formerly the Holistic Education Review.) I also serve on the faculty of the Self Design Graduate Institute. I hold an MA in EDU from Goddard College.


4 thoughts on “I took the PSAT’s…again!

  1. Paul,

    I have not taken any type of standardized test,practice or otherwise, in years but found that your comments about “Reading at Risk” rang a bell with me.

    While in high school my youngest approached me with legal issues that were being studied, and we discussed the matters for a while. According to the teacher and the textbook, it turned out I had been mistaken in my practice of law for years. Since he was going to be tested on the materials as presented, I told him to answer according to the materials whether or not they made sense or had any actual application.

    “How bizarre.”

    I wish your son the best in his test-taking endeavors.


    Posted by Brent Snavely | October 9, 2011, 11:25 pm
    • Yes, don’t think too much – just answer the question and move on.

      It is ironic that the verbal sections of the test are now called “critical reading.” Think critically only at your own peril it seems to me.

      Thanks Brent.


      Posted by holisticdancingmonkey | October 10, 2011, 4:46 pm
  2. Paul, I think the analytic processes you describe here: detached, “attacking” problems, engaging superficially and knowingly for maximum efficiency, are all attitudes that are prized in many parts of our corporate and elite cultures. (Think The Economist!) These are revealed and reinforced, not surprisingly, in the PSAT. The test is communicating a preference for a style and way of thinking, a privileging of a certain set of cognitive styles and ways of knowing, that are often unconscious and unspoken. These differences in ways of knowing often came up in graduate school, in the discourse around how to improve school, when folks from the NCLB camp would argue with qualitative methodologists.

    So I’m interested in when these conflicts in styles emerge for you. Do you find it possible to “switch” among them? Do you think of these styles as tools in your toolbox?

    And sneaking down late at night to take a practice PSAT. What middle age brings us to!


    Posted by Kirsten Olson | October 11, 2011, 10:35 am
    • You know, Kirsten, I don’t look at these styles as tools in my toolbox, though perhaps I should, and maybe now I will. Actually, I’d say more that I have seen my style-A: superficially engaging, maximum efficiency, being my immature and less fully developed self. This is a style that I have actively tried to grow out of and beyond as I have looked to move towards style-B: more conscious meaning-making, deeper critical analysis, mindfulness and wisdom. I am good at Style A, and it came naturally for me (I was a lucky one for this reason as a young student). Now I see my proclivity to this style as a detriment, a burden, and a hindrance to where I’d really like to go and grow. Perhaps I could give myself a break and see the opportunities that could be before me as having several tools in the box. Maybe I have a favorite one, but in the right time and place, another tool might be a more appropriate choice. Thanks for allowing me to reflect on that. I will continue to do so.

      And middle age, oi! Who needs it? I recently tore my MCL playing basketball (clearly a younger person’s game), and have since thrown out my back while overcompensating for the knee! The least I could do was have a little fun with a midnight standardized test! At least I was straight and sober this time, unlike when I was 15- (and still qualified for a NMS scholarship- Style-A, all the way!)

      Posted by Paul Freedman | October 11, 2011, 10:54 pm

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