Letter: Don’t Encourage ‘Magic Bullets’

Letter: Don’t Encourage ‘Magic Bullets’

To the Editor:

As a desperate high school student just sliding by, I too would hope for a magic bullet cram course to improve my standardized test scores and chances of getting into college. However, adults should know there is no magic bullet to acquire skills and information that should have been learned in years of serious preparation before college tests loom, and encouraging such thinking in our students does not serve anyone well. Even if students successfully game the tests via a cram course and get into college, they need the skills tested to remain and thrive. It’s distressing to learn that about half of the applicants to community colleges in our area fail the placement tests and need remedial English and math before they can take college courses for credit — and these remedial classes are heavily taxpayer subsidized.

Now T.C. Williams is offering “free” (taxpayer paid) college prep classes to improve students' scores — in response to student wishes. This is a poor use of resources for several reasons. Starting at the elementary level, all students take standardized tests, so they should already be familiar with test-taking strategies. Test-makers know the gaming strategies teachers tell students to improve their scores and have adjusted the tests to skirt such methods.

Just as cramming for a final exam is marginally useful, taking prep classes for a college entry test hardly prepares one — but one can hope! Jesse Jackson, visiting TCW 25 or so years ago, told students that if they studied as many hours as they spent practicing ball on the blacktop/field/court, they would succeed in the classroom and be better prepared to become responsible adults with desirable choices in their future. I remember he paused for effect and then there was silence with guilty looks as his words sank in.

If, as staff say, students claim they don’t know what test they are taking, they should be removed from the test room. Testing room doors must be marked with the name of the test, tests are labeled in large letters on the front page, and teachers are required to read the test titles and directions to the students. Condoning any student’s irresponsibility sets a poor example. Taxpayers fund registration for the SAT, which costs $49, and the subject matter tests cost $22 for a basic subject, $22 for a language with listening test and $11 for other subject tests. The ACT costs $34 or $49.50 with the writing section. Because TCW students’ average scores on these tests have decreased, it seems the administration may be pushing students who are not prepared to take the tests — and then, before the scores become available, bragging that increasing numbers of students are taking the prestigious tests. This approach wastes time and money. Taxpayers expect all school staff to maximize the use of taxpayer provided resources and to set an exemplary example for our youth.

Re preparation for the content: The test making companies provide a free booklet to each student with suggested test-taking strategies and sample questions of similar difficulty to the actual test so students know what to expect. (Useful prep books are also widely available for less than $25.) When I taught at TCW, English and math teachers were expected to discuss the appropriate parts of the test booklet with their classes. English teachers know that there is no substitute for teaching vocabulary, reading and writing/thinking skills over the student’s entire career — and those skills also affect scores in other disciplines. Students also need to learn self-discipline and perseverance.

Alexandria taxpayers already spend $17,343, more than any other locality in the country on our students. Why should we pay lots more for what they should have done already and thereby encourage students’ bad habits and false expectations? I hope the superintendent will answer this question in his column and/or another appropriate means.

Ellen Tabb