Monday, March 31, 2014

Review: The Perfect Score Project by Debbie Stier

If I wasn't already anxious about my child(ren) taking the SAT, this book would have made me nervous. I was already nervous though, which was, of course, why I chose to read the book in the first place. And it was a very worthwhile, interesting, and fascinating read, even if it did amp up my anxiety about the kid taking his first SAT this coming June.

Debbie Stier is a single mom with two kids. Knowing that her underachieving son was going to have to get financial aid to go to college and that he was unlikely to get any based on his grades, she determined that his best shot was by scoring really well on the SATs. Unlike other parents who just pay for tutoring and hope for the best though, Stier decided that she was going to figure out the best course of action for him in a far different way.  She decided to take the SAT herself, all seven times it was offered in one calendar year, to go through the various tutoring options, and to take the test at a variety of different testing sites to see what resulted in the best scores. As her project mushroomed into the enormous multileveled undertaking it finally became, she not only challenged herself to find the best options for her son, but she also set the goal of getting a perfect score for herself.

Stier chronicles her journey through the world of standardized testing and the industry that has sprung up around it to help improve your child's scores and chances of being accepted to the college of his or her choice as well as offering tips she learned through her year, some of the history of the test, and the changes that have been made to it over the years. Having taken the test long ago in high school herself, Stier knew that there were changes and that her experience then was not likely to be even close to her son's experience now. Back in the day, we all took the test without any preparation and while some people took it more than once or twice, mostly our initial test scores stood. Now the world of college admissions, in the guise of standardized testing, is far different. Almost everyone takes test prep classes. They determine ahead of time what they need score-wise to be considered at their school(s) or choice and they study and practice in order to hit that magic number. They learn the tricks and probabilities behind choosing a correct answer even when they don't know how to do the math problem, the concept behind the question, or the vocabulary. In many ways, these tests have become a show of who has the best test preparedness and strategies and Stier wanted to make sure that her son had the best.

As Stier progresses through her year of SAT testing, she tries everything and comes to certain conclusions about the usefulness of much of what is on offer out there. And yes, she shares her discoveries throughout the book, but her biggest and most important discovery was how to connect and engage with her kids. She learned how to motivate her son and how to share her enthusiasm about her project without making her kids feel pressured by it. She faces her own failings as a parent and her frustration with her classic underachiever son and in the course of the year, while she chases that elusive perfect score, she finds a way to be just the parent her son needs, even if sometimes she still goes a little overboard and off the rails.

Stier's honesty about herself, her over the top solution to helping her son, and the ways in which it works and doesn't work, is refreshing. She knows that she's a bit of a crazy woman for cooking up this plan and she acknowledges the pressure it put on her son but she also has successes and achievements that are nothing to sneeze at when parenting teenagers. The personal was nicely balanced with the more general information. The test taking tips were definitely helpful if I can get my own son to heed them and the background on the test was incredibly interesting for a nerd girl like me. I loved hearing that I can add 50 points to my verbal score from forever ago in order to bring it in line with today's re-normed scoring. This means I can gloat to my kids that I'm even smarter than I thought I was.  Maybe I'll hold off on that until after they've finished up with their own testing though. And in the meantime, my anxiety about their future performance on the test will likely not abate although this book has made me a little bit wiser about the test and results than I was before.

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