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An 'old guy' takes the SAT

Posted: September 26, 2011 - 11:01pm

High schoolers across the country have had Saturday, Oct. 1, circled on their calendars for a long time — the day they’ll take the SAT exam for college admittance.

I know the SAT intimately. I have been running a test-preparation and tutoring company on New York’s Long Island for 12 years. This year I thought it would be valuable to retake the test myself, to remember what students go through.

In April, I registered online (no more snail mail). With a late fee and the option to have my test booklet mailed to me, my fee came to $80.

That night, before I went to sleep, I wondered, “What if I screw this test up? What if my score is low?” I nervously laughed and told my wife. Her response: Imagine what your students are going through.

On test day in May, I showed up at 7:45 a.m. at Bay Shore High School (the same place I took the SAT back in high school in 1993). I could feel the stares and hear the whispers of the 16- and 17-year-olds wondering why a 35-year-old was standing in line with them. “Hey, check out the old guy,” one teen whispered.

I made sure to enter the classroom first and slid into a seat in a back corner — to avoid distracting the students. But during pretest instructions, the supervisor ordered me, without explanation, to switch with a girl who was sitting in the front row, middle seat. Her look said, “We need to keep an eye on the old guy.” The knots in my stomach tightened.

When the test began, I found myself forgetting to use the strategies that I teach students every day — like crossing out the entire wrong answer on a multiple-choice question, rather than just the letter. When I used the strategies, I remember thinking, “Wow, this is definitely making the questions easier.”

But concentrating on one thing for 51/2 hours is truly difficult, and just 45 minutes in, my mind began drifting. Unlike teens, perhaps, I didn’t think about which room my girlfriend was in or the big upcoming soccer game. My mind instead meandered to my twin 2-year-olds and to the students I tutor who were taking the test that day, too.

After 31/2 hours, the proctor, an older woman, walked by my desk, leaned over, and whispered in a friendly voice, “Why are you putting yourself through this?”

I gave a weak smile that said, “I don’t know what I was thinking.”

I lost focus when a student in back kept sneezing. Every time she did, five students unfailingly said, “Bless you.”

SAT questions I had seen many times before kept slapping me in the face. For example, a grammar question asked if a person chooses between “this and this” or “this or this.” (One should always say, “I am making a choice between this and this.”)

I kept thinking that the exam is merely a test of how well you know the SAT — one of the many criticisms of this test, and of testing in general. I felt some frustration about this as I witnessed the anxiety of students around me. But I also believe that the SAT tests students on English and math concepts that a person should know before starting college. Teaching to a test that is based on high-level critical-thinking skills is not such a bad thing.

The last aspect of this ordeal — for me and for students — was going online to check the results in late May. I was surprised to feel my heart race as I went to the official website. I was nervous ... then relieved: I had done well — a perfect 800 in the reading, and 760 each in math and writing.

Most important, I gained a lot of insight about what students go through. My inescapable conclusion: I don’t want to suffer through the SAT again for at least an additional 18 years.

• Ehlers is the founder and owner of Method Test Prep, which provides private and group tutoring throughout Long Island and the New York City area and provides web-based courses.

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