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My apologies for having dropped off the internet for a few weeks. We live in that part of New England that was left without power for almost two weeks in mid-December due to a particularly vengeful ice storm. The upside was that school vacation began seven days early. The downside was that we were distracted from writing blogs and focusing on school applications by stoking the fires and sitting in the car to charge our cell phones.  

Our daughter was scheduled to have her SSATs privately administered the day after the storm struck. She did that as the consultant had a wood stove and kerosene lamps, so we figured our daughter would at least be warmer than she would at home. However, she didn't score as well as expected, which we hope is due to the unusual circumstances and not an inaptitude for test taking. This meant that last Saturday, at the last possible session, she took the SSATs again. This also meant that a precious three hours were lost in the final weekend before applications were due.

Having decided to apply to five schools, none of which have similar essays, she got to work. We were impressed by her diligence in writing essays, editing and re-editing them. Her self-discipline and initiative were in marked contrast to our son's procrastination and seeming disinterest. She agonized over her most memorable day, what she hopes to gain from boarding school and which photographs to attach. My husband and I agonized over the parents' statements and breathed a lot in the face of helping her manage her anxiety over presenting herself as well as possible. As the deadline approached this week, we at last wrote the checks and sent the applications off.

The interviewing and applying has consumed such a large part of our fall that while we all feel much lighter having the process behind us, we will also miss the fun of learning about new schools. We have been blessed to meet so many interesting and impressive students and admissions officers during this journey. Now we wait until mid-March...

To maintain privacy and confidentiality, our author writes under the pen name "Boarding School Mom" and all family, child consultant, and school names will be changed or omitted. You can reach AQ's Boarding School Mom at [email protected]. 

Editor's Note: We're thrilled to welcome Leo Marshall as a contributor to onBoarding Schools. Leo is the Director of Admission and Financial Aid at The Webb Schools in Claremont, CA- a coed, boarding school offering grades 9-12.

It seems inevitable at the end of any presentation about our school that we face questions about test scores. Perhaps, it's because we are selective (i.e. there are more applications than available space) that families are attempting to discern the exact requirements that might guarantee admission. They don't always have a clear idea of how all this works and can see test scores as, perhaps, the only hard criteria that they might understand. Unfortunately, most do not understand the purpose of admission tests or their place in the admission process.  

Admission tests like the Secondary Schools Admission Test (SSAT), which are required by virtually every selective boarding school, are what we call aptitude tests. They do not measure what a student knows about history or science, for example. Those are called achievement tests. What aptitude tests tell is exactly what their name implies: they tell us a student's relative aptitude for doing the kind of work necessary to find success in a college preparatory school. Every school, therefore, usually has a good sense of what scores predict relative success. A student's aptitude test results, however, are meaningless unless they are measured against a school's own criteria for what kind of student is best suited for the school's program. Now this is fairly maddening for the average applicant parent as none of us can say categorically that there is a certain score for all schools that can guarantee their child is qualified for admission. What we can say about the matter is that such scores are only one small, albeit important, piece of the admission puzzle.

Test scores tell us where the applicant falls relative to the competition and to students who have attended our school in the past and found success. But boarding schools look for much more than a test score. We look for students who can live in a diverse community of students and adults, students who have a certain amount of emotional intelligence that is not easily measured by any test currently designed for admission. We look for students who have not exemplified themselves solely by a grade point average but by what actually went into that grade average, i.e. mastery of a subject. We hope to learn that from the candidate's teachers. We also search for that student who will contribute to our schools in a profound way through, perhaps, a special talent or interest. Every school needs to fill its orchestra or choir, for example, and every school has sports teams that need athletes.

In spite of our efforts, however, to explain where scores fit in this list of criteria for admission, parents still insist on enrolling their children in test preparation courses at sometimes exorbitant costs. Perhaps more alarming is the fact that they sacrifice the necessary play time every adolescent needs in search of those elusive ten to fifteen points they think will make a difference in our admission decisions (which they won't). Instead of encouraging their children to read a variety of books, they believe memorizing vocabulary words will give their child an edge. The fact of the matter is that it works in the opposite way. When we meet a candidate whose entire after-school life centers on tutors for math, English, or SSAT preparation at the expense of engaging in that activity they find most rewarding, we become less interested in the candidate.

So, where do these scores fall in the whole scheme of things? At The Webb Schools, we know that typically a student should find success if they are in the upper quartile of those tested in a particular year. But after that we look at so many other things. Yes, we have turned down top test-takers and taken a chance on those with weaker scores because they just might add a unique spark to our community.  That is the art of admissions and, regrettably for that parent looking for a definitive answer to the puzzle, it is an art that remains abstract at best.

Editor's Note:  Visit The Webb Schools' (Claremont, CA) website to learn more about the school  and its programs.

From the "Do we really need this/how far do we want to take testing?" files- the College Board brings parents and schools a new test, ReadiStep. As told to the New York Times by College Board President Gaston Caperton, the test provides a "tool that would help them determine before high school what measures should be taken to ensure that students are on the path to being college ready."

I'm not sure what the College Board wants out of its latest test offering for eighth graders, but the notion of an additional test- beyond school, district, state and No Child Left Behind measures is puzzling. The College Board argues that districts need a multiple choice test layered upon grades, comments, classroom behavior, writing, and teacher/counselor evaluations in order to give clarity to a student's achievement and standing.

You have to ask yourself, how much validity can this test hold when administered to 13 year old students whose brains are in the midst of, or have yet to go through, the brain rewiring of puberty? Sure a test can give you a quick-hit as to where a student and his/her test taking ability stands at the moment of the test. But, exactly how far for forward can a test administered to 13 year old project into the future?

Lee Jones, a College Board vice president asserted at a news conference, "This is not at all a pre-pre-pre SAT. It's a diagnostic tool to provide information about students' strengths and weaknesses." (New York Times article)

The test is described as low stakes and voluntary. But, if a school or district adopts the test and makes decisions based on test results, then how low stakes can the test actually be? If the test isn't of use, then why adopt it?

Again, from the New York Times Article, Gaston Caperton, the president of the College Board, said the new test had been developed in response to the demand from schools and districts, which he said had requested a "tool that would help them determine before high school what measures should be taken to ensure that students are on the path to being college ready."

Most eighth graders haven't taken Algebra I and have yet to grow into abstract reasoning and thinking. Again, why this test? Is it better than assessments already in use? Does it augment current assessments?

Susan Rusk, the coordinator of counseling for the Washoe County School District in Reno, Nev and one of the test's developers tells the New York Times, that the test informs parents "kids are on track with the particular skills they would need as they go forward into taking the PSAT and SAT and being ready for college."

I know that I should stay away from sports analogies, but, here goes:

ReadiStep reminds me of the traveling sports teams for junior high and high school students- the travel soccer, baseball, swimming, etc. teams that compete for months on end fueled by parents driving their kids across the state on Saturdays and Sundays to play a game in a given sport every weekend. The playing mania welling-up from the belief that their kids may fall flat or become something less if they miss a single opportunity to compete.

I hear it now. If we don't take the ReadiStep, we might miss something.

If I were considering ReadiStep, I'd begin with these questions:

  1. Why an additional test? Would this new test be better? Is this the best way to gather any data that we want? Do we already gather this data?

  2. Would an additional- low stakes- test provide data and a perspective that we don't already gather?

  3. Would this additional test/perspective tell us something about a student that we do not or cannot know through our current system?

  4. Would this additional perspective/test be more accurate that the information that we currently gather?

  5. Would ReadiStep and its data add value to what we currently provide to parents?
Bluntly, it might be time to draw a line with the testing. Let kids get through middle school without a testing burden. Let kids and their brains grow, explore, play and learn through work and fun. The abstract reasoning and higher level thinking will come with time, development, and a commitment to their school work.

My Introduction to Online Tutoring

I'm a relative newbie when it comes to web tutoring so I was more than happy to hop on a call with the owners of ziizoo.com to learn about their online tutoring company.

ziizooTutors that partner with ziizoo set their own rates and students grade the quality of their work, which in turn is posted to the public tutor profiles. Think e-bay for tutoring.

It's a simple (and from what I gathered) effective way to ensure delivery of quality services to each and every client. Of course, the other thing I found very cool is their web platform that combines web 2.0 tools like instant messaging and online whiteboards.

Most tutors focus on the core academic courses (i.e. Algebra, Geometry, Calculus, High School English, etc.), but a few list SSAT prep as an offering. Let me know if you decide to check them out. I'd love to hear how ziizoo works for you.

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AdmissionsQuest's blog dedicated to boarding school admission & schools.

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This page is a archive of recent entries in the SSAT Test Prep category.

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