Standardized Tests: The Times, They are a Changing (3/19/14)

Will revising the SAT simplify costly test prep and complex college admissions process?

On March 5, as anxious high school juniors across the country crammed for the March 8 SAT and countless high school seniors sat in limbo waiting for letters of college acceptance hinging on those SAT scores, president of the College Board, David Coleman, announced the almighty SAT will undergo its most comphrensive change since 2005.

Students won’t take the revamped SAT until spring 2016 but the College Board promises to provide a sneak peek at the overhauled exam next month.

Coleman said changes to the test include: reverting to its original scoring scale of 1600 from its current 2400, incorporating reading comprehension passages from “founding documents of America”—such as the Declaration of Independence—restricting calculator use on some math sections and making the essay optional.

The SAT is also bidding adieu to obscure vocabulary words. The College Board plans to replace current vocabulary test words like “prevaricator” and “sagacious” with words more likely to be found in college courses or the workplace, such as “synthesis” and “empirical.”

In addition, students will no longer be penalized a quarter point for wrong answers to multiple choice questions.

First administered in 1926 as the Scholastic Aptitude Test (now the Scholastic Assessment Test) and based loosely on a test developed to rank World War I soldiers, the SAT changes come as it continues to lose ground to its rival—the increasingly popular ACT (American College Test).

According to test prep authorities at the Princeton Review, 1.8 million students took the ACT last year compared to 1.7 million who took the SAT. The ACT concentrates on science and math, and many students agree it’s easier to comprehend as compared to the SAT’s focus on fancy vocabulary words and negative scoring for wrong answers.

I vaguely remember wandering into my high school’s cafeteria on a Saturday morning and taking what I think was the SAT. I know I never took a test prep course. My, how times have changed.

A few years ago as my older son prepared to take his college entrance exams, I bought enough test prep books to open my own bookstore. All the books claimed to significantly boost his test scores and looked really impressive lining the shelves of his bookcase—where they stayed.

During his test prep process I learned the SAT is offered only seven dates a year, a fact that surprised both of us. As a result, my son took his first SAT on his birthday—the morning after prom. I didn’t need a scientific calculator to predict the outcome.

Over the years, I’ve collected more books and boxes of flash cards containing words my younger son will probably never repeat but will need to memorize for his SAT before 2016.

As my second son starts his collegiate test preparations, I’m older but not any wiser. I confess, I’m still buying into the test prep trap. A few months ago, I sent my son to a costly weekend boot camp to learn the “tricks” to answering the SAT’s multiple choice questions. For two days, he learned how to guess the correct answer to certain questions and when to skip questions leaving those bubbles blank.

The tricks he learned won’t translate into practical life skills—unless, in the real world, he runs into tricksters who can be tamed with a No. 2 pencil.

The test prep industry is big business as estimates put its earnings above the $1 billion mark in the United States. Coleman hopes to change this and said the College Board seeks to eliminate expensive and elite test prep by partnering with Khan Academy, an educational website, to offer free online SAT test prep services to students across the socioeconomic spectrum.

My educated guess is the multimillion-dollar test prep industry will continue to thrive as long as parents like me will pay for perceived advantages in the college admissions crapshoot.

No one knows if the proposed changes to the SAT will be as beneficial as promised or if it will better measure academic intelligence and predict collegiate success.

All I know is the revised SAT arrives too late to benefit my son, so I’d better find those flashcards defining “prevaricator” and “sagacious.”

Memories of Spring Break – Past and Present (4/11/14)

Redefining one family’s spring vacation

Spring break isn’t what it used to be. When my boys attended elementary and middle schools we’d regularly visit our favorite sunny spots, for week-long family vacations full of fun and memories.

Today with my oldest son in college and youngest in high school, each observing separate spring break schedules, I’ve grudgingly said farewell to our annual family vacation.

Two weeks ago my college sophomore saw his fraternity brothers travel to Mexico as he headed home to gulp multiple antibiotics, catch-up on lost sleep and complete pending assignments. While he complained about missing the trip, I secretly celebrated a week free from worry about tequila, tattoos and typhoid.

Last week my high school junior embarked on his equally exciting spring break and spent it studying for Advance Placement tests.

So when I received a text asking if my niece, Eden, could mail us a houseguest, I offered to greet our visitor with open arms—even Flat Stanley vacations over spring break.

My niece is in first grade and Flat Stanley’s a popular project that teaches writing and geography. In 1995, Canadian teacher Dale Hubert created the Flat Stanley Project based on Jeff Brown’s 1964 children’s book, Flat Stanley.

Brown’s story tells the tale of young Stanley Lambchop who goes to bed one night and while asleep the bulletin board above his bed falls from the wall and flattens him. Stanley awakes to find fun being flat since it allows him to slide under doors and slip into mailboxes to visit friends.

My last encounter with Flat Stanley occurred about 10 years ago when a nephew mailed us his paper person. We took Flat Stanley to lunch at Fisherman’s, snapped a picture on the pier and promptly mailed him home.

Expecting to entertain our flat guest with another quick lunch, my surprise turned to shock when I opened the envelope from my niece. Inside I found Flat Eden (nowadays it’s common to make a flat version one’s self), a 24-page journal and instructions lengthier than the directions I used to assemble my new lounge chairs.

The letter instructed me to take her on “daily adventures” and report them in the journal. I don’t have daily adventures—unless you count Starbucks and the gym.

The guidelines encouraged me to be imaginative and creative with my writing, take numerous photos, gather many mementos and send back small treats for the entire class.

I panicked.

San Clemente’s a great place to live and vacation, but Flat Stanley has visited presidents, rocketed into space and was even rumored to be aboard the flight captain Sullenberger landed safely in the Hudson River.

Since the project complements first grade curriculum, I reached out to a family friend and my oldest son’s first grade teacher, Kelly Barreira, to ask for help. Kelly graciously invited me and Flat Eden into her classroom, saying my assignment coincidently coordinated with their current classroom community project.

The next morning Flat Eden and I visited Mrs. Barreira’s classroom. Almost 15 years had passed since my last classroom visit, and I still marveled at Kelly’s calm control, contagious energy and enthusiasm as she instructed her students.

The students sat quietly, listening as I told the story about Flat Eden and then agreed to let her help with their project. I left Flat Eden with the children and said I’d return next week.

The week passed and my son, still home recuperating, agreed to accompany me to his old elementary school.

Walking with my son onto his onetime playground, nostalgia took hold of me. I flashed back to my son’s first day at the school, recalling my overwhelming anxiety and his uninhibited excitement.

As we approached Mrs. Barreira’s classroom, my son raced past me to greet his first grade teacher, just as he had 14 years ago.

Gone were my first day jitters, but seeing my adult son and his first grade teacher embrace, I found myself once again fighting back tears as I stood nearby wondering where the years went.

I’m no longer whining about missing a pricey spring break vacation, instead I’m thankful for a priceless trip down memory lane.

The Promposal, It’s All in the Asking (5/14/14)

Four Simple Letters Spark Fear This Time of Year: P-R-O-M

Dating back to the early 1900s, prom figures prominently in popular culture and today still retains its status as a premier high school rite of passage.

Prom is one of the few milestones remaining in my younger son’s high school career. Like his brother before him, my high school junior can’t wait for time to tick by as I continue to cling to the clock, petulantly marking each memorable event.

High school students attending those first proms early in the twentieth century wouldn’t recognize the transformation of their fancy formal dances into today’s lavish evening extravaganzas. Today’s prom preparation begins long before the event with what’s commonly called the “promposal.”

The time-worn traditional question, “Will you go to prom with me?” has evolved into today’s promposal: an imaginative and over-the-top invite to prom.

In three weeks my son attends his high school prom, but months ago he started contemplating clever and creative ways to ask his girlfriend to join him. Some teens spend almost as much effort and expense in the asking as the event itself.

Nowadays, elaborate promposals rely on famous athletes or popular celebrities to do the asking, others orchestrate scavenger hunts, some beg on billboards and a few stage flash mobs.

This time of year I can’t turn on the “Today” show without seeing a teenager holding a sign with a name in bold followed by “PROM?”

Of course, the goal of the promposal is posting it on social media sites, elevating the once private moment to a public contest. Like everything in high school today, the promposal is competitive and the pressure is on to deliver an epic invite.

Last month, networks and websites focused attention on the high school senior who took his great-grandmother to his prom. Sure, the sweet story tugs at heartstrings, but I think the boy saw an out and took it—avoiding the painstaking promposal.

Credit for creating the promposal phenomenon is undocumented, but its origin appears to be in our own backyard on the decade-old MTV teen reality show, “Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County.”

After episodes showcasing male cast members staging spectacular promposals involving gorilla suits and goldfish, local school officials said they began noticing an upswing in the trend.

During peak popularity of the show, my older son asked his girlfriend to prom by planning a complicated and covert operation. After a late night dinner at Fisherman’s he and his date walked along the pier, while beneath it two of his buddies wearing wetsuits floated in the frigid water alongside a surfboard supporting a poster-board covered in glow sticks spelling out “PROM?” As planned, his friends swam out from beneath the pier towing the sign, but choppy waters caused many of the glow sticks to plunge into the sea. (She said yes.)

Last week, my younger son finalized his promposal plan and asked for my help.

My first task took me to U-Haul to find a large box. As I searched for their biggest box, a clerk approached and asked what I planned to put in the box. I replied, “My son.” Instead of speed dialing Child Protective Services, she laughed and said the word I’ve grown weary of hearing, “Prom?”

After buying a box big enough to stuff my 6-foot 3-inch son into, I stocked up on other supplies and waited for direction.

Later that evening my son and I snuck into his girlfriend’s unoccupied home. We constructed the box and I wedged him in it, wrapped it up, taped it shut and left her house with him stuffed inside the box in her bedroom. Eventually his girlfriend and her mom arrived home to discover the life-size surprise. She said yes.

Prom represents more than ateenage social event celebrating the end of an academic year; it’s recognized as a pinnacle moment commemorating the transition from adolescence to adulthood.

As a junior, my son has one last promposal to pull-off and I have another milestone to mark before his high school graduation next June. I have a feeling he’ll handle his senior year rite of passage much better than I will.

Age of Enlightenment (06/18/14)

Recent birthdays bring change and redefine a family as college closes in

Last week my older son celebrated his 20th birthday and in a few months my younger son marks his 18th birthday.

While their birthdays fall within a couple months of each other, the significance and difference between their June and September birthdays is as distinct as their personalities.

My older son celebrated his 18th birthday the week before his high school graduation and it commemorated his collegiate milestone.

My younger son will celebrate his 18th birthday as he starts his senior year of high school. Adding an 18th candle to my youngest son’s cake will symbolize the shrinking gap between high school ending and college starting.

Their landmark birthdays put them both legally on the path to adulthood and leave me in the dust contemplating the consequences.

As they abandon adolescence and enter adulthood, I’m no longer a mom of minor children. For years when asked about my kids’ ages, I’ve replied by saying I’m a mom of two teenagers.

As my youngest turns 18 years old, to say I’m a mom of a teenager is somewhat misleading, since I’m lawfully the parent of a young adult.

But it sounds so awkward to say I am the mom of young adults. All I think of when I hear young adult is the type of fiction I searched for when they were in middle school and needed a novel for a book report or to participate in their school’s Survivor Book Club.

According to the United States Census Bureau, I am the parent of millennials. Instead of labeling my sons as young adults, maybe I’ll reply that I have two millennials. Although, some people might think I parent potted plants.

My boys are part of the millennial generation: a segment of the population born between approximately 1980 and 2000 that doesn’t know life without digital technology or the internet.

As much as I complain about technology and my boys’ constant attachment to their cell phones, I admit it’s hard to imagine parenting without my cell phone. My phone acts as an umbilical cord keeping us connected.

Ages ago, as a college freshman, I’d communicate with my parents once a week to check-in on a Sunday night. Today I can’t imagine only talking to my college kid once a week. I’d prefer to hear from him once a day, but he doesn’t share my enthusiasm for conversation.

I confess, technology has become my crutch; I rely on it to keep me in contact with my young adults. I know all about positive empowerment and destructive hovering, but with the Internet’s instant access to information and my lack of willpower it’s tempting to bypass boundaries.

A couple weeks ago my cell phone died an untimely death. Once I received my replacement phone and began reconfiguring it, I discovered several new and enticing applications available.

Naturally, the first app that caught my eye asked, “Do you want to know where your family members are?” It was as if my new phone could read my mind.

I naively clicked on the icon and up popped something called the Family Map. After a few more innocent clicks I immediately received two rapid fire angry texts: “Why are you following me?” and “No, you are not tracking me!”

It’s complicated parenting my soon to be 18 year old who is about to experience unprecedented freedom and tremendous responsibility, and my 20 year old who is embracing independence and celebrating adulthood.

This year my boys’ birthdays represent major milestones for them and me. I’m no longer the mom of adolescent minors but not yet the mom of autonomous adults.

I’m still undecided how I will identify myself this year as my boys transition to adults, but next year I know my identity is inescapable: I’ll be the empty nester. Suddenly, young adult has a nice ring to it.

And So It Ebbs and Flows (7/16/14)

Paradise found and lost

I dread airplanes and flying. But the lure of 10 secluded summer days spent with my boys sent me rushing down the jetway battling for an overhead bin.

I couldn’t wait to suspend time and forget with each passing day they drift further into their own lives, while I struggle to stay afloat in the sea of change.

Arriving in our island destination, I told my husband my plan to reclaim our boys from the swells sweeping them away as he announced his plan to whisk them away on an adventurous hike.

I wasn’t surprised, somewhere over the Pacific Ocean it always happens, he changes. I’m usually asleep so I don’t witness the transformation, but flying 2,600 miles over the ocean he acquires superpowers. When I awake I expect to see the “S” emblazoned on his chest.

Maybe it’s the air pumped into the plane’s cabin, but something causes him to think he’s suddenly Superman and ready to leap tall buildings or cascading cliffs.

Fearing a Griswold-like escapade, I reminded him of our visits to island clinics and crutches. He assured me he’d planned a safe excursion and provided proof of his hours spent researching the trek—on Yelp and Wikipedia.

I countered with Internet articles documenting deaths from falls and drowning along the same stretch of rugged coastline. But, since these facts weren’t reported on Wikipedia, he claimed my sources lacked credibility.

Firm in his conviction, my husband, whose only exercise consists of our dog walking him in circles around our neighborhood, declared with or without me, they’d embark on the 8-mile hike to a majestic waterfall.

Since my idea of braving the outdoors is sleeping with our bedroom windows open, I opted out of the hike, foregoing the magnificence of the 300-foot waterfall for the beckoning beauty of a renovated resort nearby.

I dropped them off at the trailhead at 8:30 a.m. and promised to be back at 1:30 p.m. My husband assured me the hike takes five hours roundtrip, according to Yelp.

I arrived back at our appointed time and waited. At 3 p.m., minutes from hiring a helicopter to search for their limp bodies, I spotted young hikers descending near the trailhead. I asked if they’d seen my superhero and sons. They reported seeing all three at the falls but added I’d be lucky to see them by 5 p.m. since “the older guy was really struggling.”

Thankfully, all three arrived back earlier than predicted. They appeared bruised, muddied and tired, but entirely intact—except for my husband’s ego.

Their adventure over and my husband hardly able to walk, he popped Advil like Tic-Tacs and shuffled to the pool.

With our family forced to slow to an island pace, I initiated my vacation plan: relaxing days basking beachside and savoring meals served island-style.

It’s seldom the four of us come together for meals anymore, and when we do it’s even rarer that grades, goals and graduations aren’t mentioned.

This vacation, our conversations shifted and our young adults started spearheading our chats and sharing their perspectives and experiences.

I don’t want to know everything they do, but it’s fun catching glimpses into their worlds and hearing their thoughts instead of reading cryptic messages or viewing fleeting photos via text.

We shared lots of laughs, ribbings for minor mishaps or jokes that are funny only to us—and, therefore, not immediately relayed via Snapchat but instead kept as our cherished memories.

As much as I fear the flight over, the flight home is even worse but for a much different reason.

It starts in the airport waiting to board our flight home. “Mom, I just got a text, thinking of having a few people over for a BBQ tomorrow, OK?” And, “I’m going to the beach with my friends all day tomorrow, OK?”

The change happens that fast and the rip current pulls them back into their own lives, initiating the tide’s ebb and flow until next summer when they drift back to me.

The Short Road to Graduation: What I Know About My Son’s Senior Year (8/20/14)

Deja Vu All Over Again

Seven years ago when I enrolled my older son as a freshman in high school, I arrived a bundle of nerves. This week, as I enroll my younger son as a senior, I’m still a basket case—but for very different reasons.

When my older son started his senior year I didn’t have a clue what to expect. Clearly, I knew how the journey would end, but I wasn’t prepared for the potholes along the way.

This time around, as my younger son starts his senior year, I know the terrain and some of the pitfalls to avoid but I also know the road won’t be any easier.

So far my sons’ senior years are off to similar starts. Less than a month after completing their junior years of high school each received letters inviting them to sit for their senior yearbook photograph.

Last week, with my younger son dressed in a collared shirt and coordinating tie, we arrived as instructed for his official senior portrait.

As I stood in the photographer’s studio mulling over portrait packages, I felt a familiar rush of anxiety. I flashed back to my older son’s portrait appointment remembering it initiated the slippery slope toward graduation. My heart hurt knowing in an instant I’ll be sitting teary-eyed in Thalassa Stadium, again.

Returning home from the photo shoot, I recounted to my husband my traumatic afternoon and fear that in the blink of an eye our son will be gone.  My husband responded by blinking his eyes and saying, “He’s still here.” I warned him, one more satirical flicker and he might not see our son pick-up his diploma in June.

I discovered during my older son’s senior year how cruelly the calendar races from September to June. The next ten months kick-off with football games, homecoming events, and themed dances then jumps to midterms and spring break, and finally sprints to senior barbecues, grad night and graduation.

Amid the year-long flurry of fun activities, my younger son will spend his Thanksgiving break completing college applications. Months of anxious waiting will follow while we wait for the decision of an anonymous admissions panel to announce how lucky we are that they’re taking my son from me for four years.

This time around, instead of counting down the days until his departure like I did with my older son, I intend to enjoy the day-to-day high school routine. I pledge to shed some of my black clothing and stop marking the maudlin list of every “last” milestone—his last birthday at home, his last prom, and so forth.

I’m rationalizing by living in the moment I’ll minimize my misery—the denial gene runs like a river through my genetic pool so I stand a great chance of temporarily fooling myself.

I expect as my son’s senior year progresses he’ll begin to push the boundaries of the last three years. He’ll challenge our rules and decisions to taste his impending freedom and independence. This time, I’ll try to loosen the leash and accept it’s good to gain some autonomy under our roof before sending him into unruly student housing.

I know, as the calendar comes to a close, senioritis will strike but I vow to leave the battlefield of “The Great Curfew War” less bloodied than with my older son.

We butted heads as he fought to free himself from my jurisdiction and jump into the world of young adulthood, and I fought letting him go and losing my beloved job as fulltime parent. In retrospect I realize our conflict wasn’t about the neon numbers flashing on the digital clock, but instead the fleeting hours remaining on our household clock.

This time around I’m less naïve, but it’s still difficult enjoying the journey when reaching the destination is dreaded.

Too soon I’ll find myself sitting in Thalassa Stadium watching my younger son cross the stage to receive his high school diploma.

The second time isn’t any easier, but at least this time I know to bring more Kleenex.

September’s Rush Creates Added Stress (9/17/14)

The Greek bonds of brotherhood and secrecy

September often sparks anxiety in students and parents as another school year starts. My younger son is a high school senior in his second week of classes. My older son is a junior at college in his fourth week of classes and so far so good, but fraternity rush events begin this week.

I have John Heath to thank for my annual panic attack—he founded the first fraternity, Phi Beta Kappa Society, at The College of William and Mary in 1776.

My frat fears started at a midnight screening of National Lampoon’s Animal House in 1978 and escalated when my son announced his intent to go Greek.

As a freshman, my social son jumped at the chance to join the rush tradition. I responded by emailing him news reports about dangerous drinking games and risky hazing sometimes associated with Greek life.

He replied with emails about the merits of his hopeful fraternity’s respected social, academic and charitable status. The chapter’s Parent Board even mailed us a Parents’ Club Newsletter affirming the accolades of the organization. He rushed a few frats but set his heart on pledging only one. He’d call excited about rushing and I’d try being supportive but the Greek fraternity names all sound alike to me so he’d balk as I butchered the name of every house.

Most fraternities consist of just two or three Greek letters but it’s still confusing. The Greek alphabet contains 24 letters starting with alpha and ending with omega. The first three letters are alpha, beta, gamma—I thought it was a fraternity.

As rush came to a close, my son called ecstatic to report he’d received a bid from the fraternity of his dreams and an invitation to participate in a pledge weekend. I asked if he’d learned any secret passwords or handshakes. He didn’t answer and said he had to hang-up, adding he’d be too busy to talk over the weekend so he’d call us Sunday night.

Saturday afternoon I received a voicemail about possible fraudulent charges made to our credit card. I returned the call and spoke to a nice woman at the bank who informed me it wasn’t my credit card in question but my son’s.

She asked if my son was out of the state, to which I replied, “He’d better not be.” She laughed and said his credit card activity indicated he’d traveled to Las Vegas. My son’s credit card is only authorized in California. Reluctantly, I approved the out-of-state charges and got back down on my knees. Finally, my son called Sunday night elated and exhausted.

He explained his weekend involved a scavenger hunt of the Western states with a carload of his brothers taking turns driving to mapped locations to find an item, retrieve it and follow clues to the next destination.

I hate the Greek alphabet but there’s one thing I love about Greek life: their brotherhood of secrets. Their cloak of secrecy prevents my son from sharing much about his frat life and the less I know the better. My son kept his pledge experiences quiet but his real brother heard enough to declare he’s never joining a fraternity—a win-win situation for me.

Since joining his fraternity, my son has embraced Greek life and taken on leadership roles: he’s board member of his fraternity and an interfraternity council member. Last month at freshman orientation he answered questions and calmed the nerves of parents facing future fraternity anxiety. Years of placating me prepared him well to pacify other parents—he’s yet to thank me.

The fraternity my son joined maintains its well-regarded reputation, impressive academic record and charitable community contributions. My son has found a big brother who’s a great mentor, succeeded at internships and forged lifelong friendships.

As much as my neck hurts at times from turning my head the other way, I do respect his bonds of brotherhood and am happy he found his house away from home. But, from alpha to omega, it’s all Greek to me.