Standardized nightmare

How I took the SATs as a grownup and wound up a broken woman.

By Leslie Crawford

Years ago as a freelancer on the hunt for untapped subjects, I landed upon what I thought would make the perfect newspaper article. With my high school days mercifully far behind me, I’d return to re-experience that nail-biting teen rite of passage: taking the SATs. Wouldn’t that be interesting, I thought.

I was curious to answer some basic questions: How much did I remember from my now-hazy high school education? Now that I was a grownup with a college degree and more than a decade of professional work under my belt, would the test be easier than sweating through the Pythagorean theorem at 15? Finally, since the test wasn’t going on my permanent record, could I actually have some — gasp! — fun with it?

If only I could have imagined how the word “fun” would soon haunt and mock me as I stepped into my own Freaky Friday experiment, I would have sprinted in the other direction. Sure, the stakes were low. But the only tests I’d scored high on since graduating from college were in women’s magazines. “Are you a giver or a taker?” Giver! “What’s your fashion IQ?” Genius! But shivering in the early-morning cold outside the concrete high school with those terror-stricken teens, I quickly realized this was anything but a lark.

Scary, scary Saturday

The teenagers stood grimly and silently in line. You could practically smell the fear wafting from their hunched shoulders. It was as if they were worried that all the probability problems and tetrahedral structures they’d crammed into their brains over the past few months would escape and run down the sidewalk. The fear was contagious. As the panic rose in my belly, I realized something: I hadn’t studied.

Eventually, the classroom doors opened. Tests were passed out. A proctor recited stern instructions about using no. 2 pencils, not going over the time limit, and staying within the bubbles. And then . . . we were off.

Thank you, test gods, for starting with English, my major! No problem.

But it didn’t take long for the nightmare to begin. Immediately, I got stuck on identifying main verbs in Old English poems. Was the correct answer “shall see” or “shall find”? Everyone around me was turning pages, madly filling in bubbles, while the timer was tick-tick-ticking like a relentless phantom in an Edgar Allen Poe tale. History came next, which was even worse.

Do I know — did I ever know — if the Maya of Mesoamerica were best known for ship building and navigation, mathematics and astronomy, or animal husbandry?

By the time I hit the math section, the entire experience got foggy. Everyone was clicking away on their calculators. Calculators? No one told me to bring a calculator! My heart raced. I sweated profusely. My vision became blurry. I didn’t black out, but I must have undergone a low-level anxiety attack.

Somewhere during the physics problems, I gave up and started filling in bubbles randomly, not even trying to read the questions. The experience was so embarrassing, I never wrote about it. When the test results were sent to me, I threw them away without looking at my, I’m sure, abysmal score. You Mensa types need not showboat about how easy such tests are. For some of us — most of us, I reckon — taking the SATs is no walk in the park.

The upside to failure

There was, however, one redeeming thing about this self-inflicted torture: Getting a dose of parental perspective.

So the next time you’re pressuring your kids to study, study, study for those tests that will affect their entire lives, take an imaginary walk in their shoes. Sure, we want our kids to thrive in school and in life. But show them a little mercy. Because when they’re sitting there filling in pages of bubbles, hoping this one test won’t ruin the rest of their lives, they aren’t going to find any.

is a senior editor at GreatSchools.