A lot of noise has been made about the rough ride that this year’s high school seniors are having, and it’s merited. Their graduation ceremonies have been strange drive-through affairs, a parade of SUVs with the windows rolled up, black caps barely visible. Their parties have been tiny barbecues laced with a sauce of anxiety. These are tiny disasters, in the scale of things, but they do matter quite a lot for the people living them, who are being sent into an uncertain world with less preparation than usual.
I’d like to make some noise, though, for the poor high-school sophomores and juniors.
In my experience, this is when people start figuring themselves out. It took me that long to find a friend group I enjoyed (if only I could go back in time and shout at my freshman self: do the student-run Shakespeare plays, Jessie, not the school-produced overly-patriotic musicals!), and to figure out how to (at least sort of) study for the AP math classes I’d for some reason signed up for.
It’s also, of course, when you take The Tests — Those Tests — the Numbers that Determine One’s Future, dystopia-style.
I’ve been quiet on the Internet about my current job. Partly it’s out of guilt – not only am I still employed, unlike so many others, but I’m at least slightly complicit in the system that privileges those who can pay for help – and partly it’s because people’s eyes glaze over when I start talking about the ACT and SAT. Most people do not like standardized tests as much as I do, and I appreciate that fact. Most people just want to get through them.
I’ve been working with students for a year and a half now, and I’ve got to say that helping people boost their scores on the English-y components of these exams has taught me quite a lot about… well, not just clauses and apostrophes and misplaced modifiers, but humans as a whole.
Are there parts of my job I don’t love? Absolutely. I’m ceaselessly emailing (and always end up using too many exclamation marks and smiley faces). I’m often in a desk chair for far too long and sit strangely and one of my legs goes numb. I know way, way too much about ants, because the ACT is, for some reason, obsessed.
Still, I feel lucky every day to have found out how much I like forcing high schoolers to numerically improve their performance on a (rigged, biased, fallible) test.
This is payback, partly. As a teen, I was awful at studying. I focused only on what I was good at, and resented having to do anything else. I was good at standardized tests, though, which gave me an unfair advantage; not only did it pay for my college, it let the teachers reluctantly allow me to read under my desk while they talked about facts. As I tell the kids, it’s not so much that I’ve mastered the tests’ content – it’s more that I’m good at knowing how questions are asked. Plus, I find it deeply pleasurable to be right, as anyone who knows me can attest.
But I don’t think I knew, before starting this job, what it looks like to improve.
Some kids come to me in despair. They take a practice test. The Numbers are not good. They say sheepishly, “I’m a slow reader.” Or: “I’m bad at grammar.” Or: “I hate tests in general.” They look beaten down, daunted by the massive manual of ACTs we’ve given them; they’re sure they’ll never know comma rules, or make it through the Reading section in time.
And then – if they’re trying, even a little bit? – there comes this moment in which the despair lifts.
The great, and somewhat crappy, thing about the ACT and SAT is that with enough help, anyone can learn to rock them.
What this means for the country as a whole is that our system is fundamentally unequal. The private-school kids I teach, all of whom have had intense help with reading, who show up with notebooks and pens, who have cars so they can get to the tutoring center, whose parents can afford to spend hours on the phone with me talking about their child’s needs, who have the necessary documentation to push for time-and-a-half?
I know they’ll be fine. They will be, because I am here, pointing out the mistakes they keep making with optional clauses and that shitty “first chronologically” question in Reading. No matter how anxious they are, how stressed about the Number: they can be pushed to figure it out, and I will be blessed with the moment of relief that comes the first time they score in the thirties.
Not everyone is a good test-taker, yes, but with enough help and enough practice, anyone can become one. That’s what I’ve learned about humanity in this year and a half.
Some take more time than others; everyone requires a different approach. With some students, it’s best to sit back and be quiet and let them figure it out, and with others, you’ve got to launch into lengthy explanations and make jokes. But everyone can get it.
This is why I get angry when it’s suggested that throwing money at schools won’t solve the problems with them. It will. If you had enough money, you could pair every high schooler with a mercenary tutor like me, and they would improve. It has happened with every single person I’ve ever taught, and by my count, this year and last, I’m up to at least 300 of them. There is no person on this earth who would not get better with someone who was paid to, for an hour or so a week, sit down with them and explain where it is they’ve gone wrong.
Last night, in a tutoring session, I was talking loosely about the very few English mistakes with one of the brightest kids I’ve had — we veered off, for a time, into chatting about his swim-coaching job and about the silica aerogel featured in the passage — when he frowned at his screen. I was wondering what it was I’d said, but it turned out it was an email that’d just popped up: he’d been booted from the July test he’d signed up for. Social distancing, it turned out, would not be possible if he showed up.
“No,” he gasped. “Noooo!”
Pour one out for the poor juniors, everyone. These kids were supposed to test in April. April was canceled entirely. Merrily they signed up for June. Alas, June’s test was not to be. “July,” I kept saying to them. “I’m sure July will happen.”
It is happening for some of them. For those who signed up later, though, they’re out of luck. The ACT is prioritizing seniors, also – people who still have to take this by fall or else they can’t go to college – and so many people who started early, figuring that they’d knock it out and move on with their final year, are out of luck.
What is it saying about American society that we’re putting so much sustained, gradual pressure on people to take a test that keeps not even happening? That we’re saying, “You’ve got to do this – and score well – or else you won’t succeed as an adult,” and then yanking it away from them?
Circumstances demand it, of course; we don’t want anyone getting coronavirus while struggling with semicolons. It just sucks, though, and I feel like possibly the people responsible could have figured something out by now. The constantly-canceled tests seem like a microcosm of the country as a whole: you need to do this, you need to do that, the administration is saying, and people are trying their best to survive, but the stimulus checks are done and they have no way of making rent. Unless, of course, they happen to be like many of the families I know: who have come out on top, and who can still afford pretty much everything.
I’ve made my peace with the way in which my job perpetuates the wealth gap. The fact is, there’s a glut of writers and not a lot of jobs for us; if we like money, we’re shunted into advertising or corporate communications, and teaching kids feels better than that. If we resolve to help fight for change, we work for the nonprofits and publishing houses that are first on the chopping block. If we teach in the public school system, we’re at the mercy of Betsy DeVos. Basically, it’s either this or learn to code, and I don’t really feel like doing that.
There’s also the fact that it just feels good. As a person who liked standardized tests when she took them, helping someone else succeed: it scratches the same itch, it gives me the same thrill. It’s helped me learn about processing speeds, about slowing down and not handing people the answer; it’s let me have lots of deeply weird conversations with kids by just asking some of the right questions. (I also am in charge of scheduling myself and set my own hours, which is something I’ve learned I need to do in a job, because again, I’m deeply bossy.)
But I, like my boss at the tutoring center where I work, am going to keep asking how we can help the people who can’t afford to hire us. We’ve done some free workshops for kids from a program in the Minneapolis public schools, and we’re going to do more, but I’m aware it’s far from enough.
I want to find a way I can sit across from more people and help them through this weird part of high school, the one where you – if you’re lucky – have to sit in an uncomfortable chair for four hours, wearing a mask and nervously hoping your sharpened #2 pencils hold up. Everyone deserves it — a helper, a voice in your ear, a coffee-stained voice whispering, “Often commas act like parentheses enclosing phrases you can delete from the sentence! Make sure there are two of them!” and holding up its hands in the Zoom screen, just so you’re sure you know what it means.