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Second guessing ACT

Students taking ownership. Part 1. Of many.

Stefanie called me yesterday. She asked if we could meet to discuss her son’s preparation for the ACT, which is coming up on Saturday. Stefanie and her son are clients of mine, and this her and her husband’s third child with whom I am working. As with just about all of my clients, Stefanie and her husband carry different passports from one another and have lived and are living as expats in a foreign land. Their children have all been third-culture kids. Jakob is finishing his IB in a Southern Hemisphere private school here in Australia-NZ. Stefanie is European. We know one another well.

“Jakob took his mock ACT exam and could not even finish it. He’s bombarded with IA’s. I don’t know how he’ll get it all done and manage to do well let alone complete the ACT on Saturday!” The panic in Stefanie’s voice was clear; when I saw her face the stress and anxiety was obvious. I immediately thought of how we—educators and those running this game of admissions—are failing everyone. But, clearly this is not the time to get into that discussion. We needed some immediate solutions.

Jakob will finish high school and his IBDP in December, six months ahead of his cohort in the Northern Hemisphere. He’s not yet taken the ACT (or any standardized test for that matter) and the plan was to have him finish his “testing”, ideally, by June, taking the April exam and then the June exam. He’s been preparing with a private tutor (I have yet to find a reliable, experienced, knowledgeable SAT/ACT tutor based in Australia-NZ for my families), fortunate enough to have that access. Is he gung-ho, super-excited about the uni-admissions process? That’s a negative. And, that’s quite “normal” for a lot of my students at this stage—in particular the young men—and my job is not to judge it. Teenagers have a lot of “stuff” going on, and it’s not just IB or AP or A-levels or exams or class; it’s life and hormones and growing into who they are. So, how does this relate to taking the ACT this Saturday?

Well, the anxiety for Jakob’s mother, Stefanie, was watching her son suffer through loads of work, get little sleep and clearly not do well on any practice tests for the upcoming ACT. “Can he just not take it, Jen?” There were two main points to my response:

One, let’s look at logistics and possible consequences/outcomes. He could cancel the test now and not take it, continue to prepare for the June test. That would mean he would be looking at taking it again in the “fall” (that’s the spring here down under) again, ideally before any “early applications” were due if he chooses to apply ED or EA or SCEA or…to any institution on his final Short List. Is there a problem with that? No. But, I do like to see my students be able to prepare for these [ridiculous, not-indicative-of-success-in-university, it’s-a-business—do you see my view on these standardized tests?] standardized tests in one-fell-swoop as much as possible as most will take it twice. If Jakob doesn’t take it on Saturday, he’s going to be preparing for June and then re-preparing for the exam again over a series of weeks after the “summer”. Not ideal from a time-management perspective. Yet, doable. And, to no consequence other than just that—more time spent on test prep and not getting them over and done with. If he chooses to take it on Saturday and just bottoms out, he does have June to take it again. (And, of course, he could take it a third time later in the year but the stats show there is little progression from the second to third time taking the test and, really? Three times taking this ridiculous exam means there’s a huge flaw in the system; why do the students and parents have to “pay” for that?) The risk is that he does not do well on Saturday; and, clearly, that is a very real risk. What if a college he applies to wants to see all of his test scores? He has to send this terrible result in? Will that affect admissions even if he has scored well on the June test, seeing that he has such a poor test score under his belt?

I won’t answer the question because Jakob answered it. And, I’ll get to that in a minute.

Two, and most important in my way of thinking, is what does Jakob want to do about this? But he’s only 18. Yes, but this is his life. He is fully capable of weighing the pros and cons and telling us himself what he wants to do. And, that’s precisely what we did.

Stefanie and I met with Jakob yesterday afternoon. He was chugging down Suchard Express (that’s a Cola Cao to you Spaniards, a Nestle Quik to you North Americans, a Milo to you Singaporeans…every country has its version…) in between arriving home from school and starting back up with his IA’s (that’s “internal assessment”—any IB student or parent is sighing right now reading this). “Jakob, here’s my concern. You’ve got a massive load on your plate and have just a wee bit of stress in your life right now. Let’s talk about the option of not taking the ACT on Saturday” is how I began.

I finished by going over the pros and cons of each. He finished by giving me one of those 18-year-old-looks that made me feel old and said, “I’m taking it. I prepared for it and I’m going to take it. And, if a school doesn’t accept me because they see one bad score on this one exam, well, then, I don’t want that school anyhow. Now, can I go do my work?”

And, voilà. Decision made. And, that’s the most important part of this story. Jakob told us what he wants to do and we’re respecting it. It’s an adult moment and regardless of the result of the ACT he takes on Saturday, this experience of owning his own actions and the consequences is worth far more than a test score…or the adult taking the decision for him.

Wish he could take some Suchard Express into the testing room with him, though. It’s a long exam…

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