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Race to Nowhere: Are Successful High Schools Hurting Students?

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What is all that testing doing to the kids? What is it really accomplishing?

A lot of people have been asking those questions. One of them, a concerned mother and novice film-maker named Vicki Abeles, made a film recently, called Race to Nowhere, about how incredibly stressful school has become for kids. And how the pressure to get into a very specific kind of college has become, in many areas, integral to pre-college education. The New York Times' article "Parents Embrace Documentary on Pressures of School" reports on the film and the reaction it is inspiring throughout the country.

Are students learning how to pass tests, rather than how to retain and connect information? Well, probably. Colleges require more and more incoming students to take remedial classes, even when those same students got excellent grades in high school. My freshman year of college, the expository writing instructor gave the entire class an NP (non pass) on our first assignment.

"High school never prepares you for college," she said, disgusted.

It does prepare you to get into college, though. At least at the high performing, affluent high schools where so many students seem on the verge of flying into pieces from being pulled in so many directions simultaneously. It isn't enough to have a nearly perfect GPA. You have to prove that you're naturally talented at something artistic. And dedicated to something worthwhile -- like feeding the hungry, or clothing the naked, or curing cancer. You have to be a leader. Which means being president of a club, or founding a club and then guiding that club towards the ultimate goal of curing cancer. You should probably also play at least one sport. And make sure you don't forget to take AP classes while you're doing all the rest of that.

I grew up in Princeton, NJ, surrounded by kids who were doing a million things at once, from the time they were shockingly young. When I tutored 12-year-olds, a few of them were already taking practice SAT tests. And they were already scoring in my range (I am terrible at math).

The first test I ever took was the SAT. It was terrifying. I sat in a room with a bunch of other teenagers, clutching a number 2 pencil until my entire hand ached, and feeling as though something huge was about to happen. The sense of impending doom was palpable. But for me, the sense that my fate was being decided was vague. I was home-schooled. Where I went to college didn't seem very important, because school had never been important. It seemed more critical that I prove to myself and the world that I could take a test.

I thought that maybe taking the SAT was easy for everyone else in the room. They'd been taking tests for so long. But afterward, my schooled friends were clear about how terrified they'd been. In fact, they assured me that they were even more scared than I could possibly imagine. My puny, unsophisticated home-schooler fear was pitiable in the company of their massive, complicated, thrashing anticipation. Whole identities rested on the successful navigation of this juncture. Lives were poised on the brink. They absolutely had to get into a good college. And "good" meant "please, please, please let it be one of the top 10 in U.S. News and World Report!"

When, for grad school, I went to one of those "good" colleges, the undergraduate seniors I met could still vividly remember the moment they'd received their acceptance letters, and their worth had been validated. It was relief so overwhelming that a person could fall down and not get up for a long time. After everything -- after the crushing exhaustion of doing everything exactly right -- they had made it.

But really, as they were to find out very soon, they'd only made it to college. And there is a lot more to life than going to school.

This piece also appears on Un-schooled.net.