My mom and I just took my two boys, ages 6 and 8, to Disneyland. It was their first trip, and we went excited to experience it through them. It was spring break for us — and, it seemed, for most of the world. Wait times for rides were 30 minutes at the very least, and I dressed the boys in blinding shades so I would not lose them in the oppressive rush of people. The boys like it: they liked Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride; they liked AstroBlasters. The loved the simulated Star Tour through a world of droids and Jedis. After four or five rides a day, though, they were ready to go back to our little suite at the hotel and play Jedi Warriors with their new lightsabers or go swimming in the wildly chlorinated pool. (Yes, we bought them lightsabers. This is important in the actual point of this post. Don’t judge).
After three full days at the park, I kicked back at the hotel and did what any of you might do — I logged on to the Khan Academy SAT prep site and took some practice tests. My students will be taking the SAT in about 2 weeks, and I wanted to know what their practice and real exams would be like.
I cannot really express here, without sounding unhinged, the rage, despair and disbelief I felt while doing the tests. This is actually the subject of another post — or perhaps, another career — but suffice to say that my students’ unfamiliarity with 16th century Dutch painting may hinder their comfort with the first reading portion of the practice. The subjects are culturally biased, anachronistic, and this I say as someone with a BA, an MA and almost a PhD, irrelevant to most post-secondary education.
My point here, though, is about our American obsession with the SAT as a measure of college preparedness. We ask young people to read passages they didn’t choose and then feed exactly four choices to choose one answer. Repeat. Then we ask them to solve some math they didn’t choose either, with the same number of choices. Then they read something they didn’t choose or create, and then dissect it as if it were important to them in a formulaic essay.
I ruminated about this at Disneyland, in another endless line for a ride I’d never been on because this definition of college readiness is so similar the way we also commercially define “fun.” At Disneyland, we have fun by standing in line for 45 minutes to go on a 2 minute ride where we sit, get whirled around a little, and maybe pretend to steer. We eat what is offered. We get the black ears with the red bow or the sparkly ears. My boys repeatedly tried to climb on railings and the plastic “rocks,” and were repeatedly told by very young, not very happy, costumed employees to “get down!” The fun was not to be had adventuring for real; rather the fun is to be had on the automatronic carts and flying machines.
My students, who have spent three years creating meaning, producing knowledge, and inventing themselves, will be judged by colleges by a tool, the content of which they literally have no control over. Much of our work together was about how they might design solutions to difficult problems; how they might choose topics and synthesize information about them, and how they might think critically about issues important to them, their families, their communities. The test says: here is something you need to care about. Here are some answers. Consume, don’t produce. If you don’t consume this right, you will not have chances to produce or to consume in college. Use process of elimination!
In the same way, Disneyland is of course all about consumption and nothing about production. The boys liked it, of course, but their imaginations were stagnant, and they made no creative choices in their experiences. When they came back to the hotel, though, they came alive with Jedi fire and First Order wrath, whacking one another with those wonderful plastic lightsabers, using the basic outline of the story as a jumping off point for their convoluted and ceaselessly perilous bed-to-bed rebellions. They went swimming, one learning to go underwater for the first time, and the other perfecting a cannonball. They drew comics and made clay monsters.
They also fought like brothers and whined to watch TV and drove me crazy; standing in line was, truthfully, easier. And this is the point, of course, of the SAT: it is simply easier — not more useful, not more real, not more of an indicator of college and career success — for us to write, to assess, to use the SATS and its ilk than to use any real measure of creativity, of knowledge production and analysis, of the ability to think critically, of goodheartedness, of radical hope and imagination. It is easier to measure how our young people can rearrange and analyze information that they may or may not care about.
Disneyland and the SAT are easy and expensive. They let us think that we are doing something (fun family time! testing knowledge!) while stripping our young people of our human urge to create, question, and to show our humanity. For my boys, this was a spring break that they can return from, and get back to the real business of messy, mom-maddening play. For my working class students of color, however, the SAT is high stakes, spiritually expensive, and opaque — both in form and in content. It matters, even if its content, very significantly, does not. They take the test next week, and I am hoping against hope that it doesn’t crush their spirits, which are buoyed, I hope, by a year of learning about what does, indeed, matter.
I would certainly be pleased if the SAT included more culturally relevant readings and topics in their tests, but this is not what bothers me the very most about the exam. We are essentially still valuing knowledge consumption in a world where we desperately need creative knowledge production. It is time to reclaim and redefine “fun” and readiness for college. So, I say: get out your lightsabers. Climb on the railings and into the landscaping. Learn to cannonball. I will see you in the pansies, where we can scoop up dirt, make mud forts and plot the rebellion.