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Posted at 3:19 PM ET, 03/ 7/2011

Hiding kids’ SAT scores from them

By Jay Mathews

If you overlook the 12-foot-long purple dinosaur in the front yard of their stone-and-brick Bethesda home, the Demarees appear to be a typical American family of the Washington suburban variety.

Debby and Larry are commercial real estate brokers with incomes above the national mean. Their children went to private schools and are active and ambitious. Liz, 22, is a straight-A graduate student planning to teach. Tim, 22, has his own business. Cat, 20, is at the NYU Tisch School of the Arts studying to be Meryl Streep.

I mention the Demarees only because one part of their family story is so contrary to the character of their neighborhood and this region that it may inspire astonishment, disbelief and maybe even censure. When their three kids were applying for college, Debby and Larry never let them know what their SAT scores were.

“We told them that the scores were unimportant and not a measure of who they are or what they want in life,” Debby said. “Did we test prep? No. Did we tutor? No. Did we apply to 15 colleges? No. . . . Did we use private college counselors? No. Did we even rely on the school counselors? No.”

Well. Let’s all take a breath, particularly parents like me who waited anxiously for my children to open the SAT results envelope so we would know how desperate we were going to feel in the forced march to college.

I have a problem with the documentary “Race To Nowhere” that decries the pressure we are putting on our kids. I agree that it addresses an important issue. It is bad that lust for selective colleges is as natural to us as backyard barbecues and ski vacations. My complaint is that the film never acknowledges that encouragement of five hours of homework a night is prevalent only in the top 10 percent of communities measured by parental income and education.

A much more serious problem is that most high schoolers spend less than an hour a day on homework--often no time at all-- and devote their afternoons and evenings to video games, TV and other unstressful pursuits. That reduces choices in life and helps maintain vast pockets of poverty. Regretfully, that doesn’t seem to interest the producers of “Race To Nowhere” or the parents who flock to PTA meetings in wealthy school districts where the film is often screened.

Still, they are right to worry about our college obsession. What can we do about that? Why not learn from families like the Demarees? They let their children make their own decisions even when friends and school officials told them that would ruin their kids’ lives.

The Demaree children had average grades and various learning disabilities, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Liz was so out of control as a child that the coach of her boys-and-girls soccer team switched to all boys in order to get rid of her. At age seven she wanted to learn Irish dance. When she decided to major in that at the University of Limerick in Ireland, her parents said fine, even though people asked, “What can she ever do with that?”

Tim was told he would never get into the University of Maryland, but he talked the theater department into taking him because of his backstage skills. He didn’t like sitting in class so he dropped out sophomore year, and runs a successful pressure washing company (with contracts for cleaning 30 shopping centers) he began at age 8.

No one believed Cat would get into super selective Tisch, but she flew to Florida to make the last possible audition, and nailed it.

Debby told me, “What makes you think you have to be part of the herd?” It takes some courage, and faith in our kids. But if we listen to them carefully, as the Demarees did, their sense of the future will make more sense than what everyone else is telling us.

By Jay Mathews  | March 7, 2011; 3:19 PM ET
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Does Cat Demaree graduate NYU this spring? If yes, see ya at Yankee Stadium May 18th! Congrats!

Posted by: lisamc31 | March 7, 2011 5:23 PM | Report abuse

Interesting. We took a similar approach with my first....we didn't hide his test scores, that's ridiculous, but we avoided the pressure for the private counselors, test prep, etc. He went to a very rigorous DC area program, had super high SAT scores, perfect SAT II scores, many AP tests with 5s, decent grades and some extracurriculars. He got into only a few schools (second rate institutions) and wait listed to several (where he was over the 75% for SAT scores). One school told me that they got so many with perfect SAT scores and top grades that they wait listed a lot they would normally have accepted outright. Be afraid. Our experience demonstrates that if you don't have perfect scores and grades, you will go to a second or third rate school. So, my other children will get the professional test prep and counseling which is ridiculous. Hate to do that, but its been made into a game where the stakes are too high to lose.

Posted by: commentator3 | March 7, 2011 7:05 PM | Report abuse

This is quite interesting. I'm impressed with parents willing to back off and let their children grow.

That said, I have to argue with the idea that high schoolers should be doing hours of homework each day. Their time could be better used than video games and tv, but many are working or involved in other extra curricular activities. I believe we would be better served if our young people were more well rounded than is possible if academics is their only focus.

Finally, isn't it possible that "unstressful pursuits" are worthwhile as well? Don't adults often spend their free time on things that don't stress them? Why do we expect teenagers to be totally focused on academics, both in school and out?

Posted by: Jenny04 | March 7, 2011 7:57 PM | Report abuse

My worry, after having taught in South Korea for seven years and then reading through this column and these comments, is that these are the attitudes indicative of a civilization almost certain to decline in the 21st century. Such romanticism seems anachronistic in a century of limitless competition. I'm glad the Demaree children are doing fine; but this appears more an attempt to allay parental consciences than the advocacy of a model likely to succeed at a general scale.

Posted by: BruceWilliamSmith | March 7, 2011 11:47 PM | Report abuse

Wow, talk about helicopter parenting. That's the ultimate. Do you realize the degree of control they have over their kids' lives? Revolting.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | March 7, 2011 11:48 PM | Report abuse

@ commentator3 and others: Getting into a "selective" college or university (Harvard rejects something like 94 percent of those who apply) has indeed turned into "a game." But you don't have to play the game.

Much of the perception about so-called "elite" institutions is badly misplaced. So too is your characterization of "second or third rate" schools. In fact, a student can get a great education at a school that doesn't have a name pedigree, and a poor education at one with the "big name."

A lot of what people think about the "best" colleges comes from rankings like those put out by U.S. News & World Report. Those rankings are as egregiously flawed and pernicious as the "best" high schools report that Jay Mathews created for high schools (based on the number of AP tests a school gives). More and more colleges and universities are refusing to play the game with U.S. News.

Sadly, more high schools are pushing AP even though "the research evidence on its value is minimal." Both AP courses and SAT scores are part of "the game." AP is hyped as "better," than typical college prep classes, but there just isn't any research evidence to support the belief. Students readily admit that the reason they take AP is not for the learning, but to "look good."

The SAT is a test that is past due for the junk heap. Based on the old Army Alpha IQ testing from World War I, the SAT is tied to elitism and the eugenics movement. As Nicholas Lemann points out, many of its early advocates believed that intelligence was fixed, it was (is) "an innate and sort of biological quality."

And while there were those who thought the SAT might ferret out students who otherwise would never receive a college education, it has become the most widely abused test in the country. As Lemann notes: "...people will start madly manipulating the system to their favor and to the favor of their children...people who have more money and more power and more sophistication will be able to manipulate it more successfully." That's where we are.

So, what does the SAT actually do? Not much. At best, it predicts about 15 percent of the variation in freshman-year college grades, and after that nothing at all. College enrollment experts say shoe size would work as well (maybe better).

For more see:

Or see:

Both AP and the SAT comprise an "arms race" that has very serious unintended consequences, almost a higher education equivalent of No Child Left Behind, which in fact as left many kids behind.

The game will continue as long as people keep playing the game.

Posted by: DrDemocracy | March 8, 2011 9:20 AM | Report abuse

I agree: Revolting.

But then, I had parents who had never heard of the SAT and even today know nothing about it. I registered for and made travel arrangements to take it myself, and my parents never saw the scores.

Oh, and ski vacations aren't exactly natural to me either.

Posted by: hainish | March 8, 2011 12:54 PM | Report abuse

I think you should ask our kids if it is "revolting" and boy are you wrong about helicopter parenting in this house. We were both the first in our families to graduate from college.

And as for the perfect student who didn't get into the schools he wanted, there is a lot more to the process than the "perfectness" as you found out. in fact it is the perfectness that had him rejected. If you are in a top prep school and your are in the top group, there are many other things that come into play regarding admissions. They are only going to accept a percentage of those who apply out of your school. So therefore if there are 10 students applying and they only traditionally accept 5 from your school, you are already in difficult territory. The process doesn't compare apples to apples. Other factors start coming into play. Legacy, male vs female, etc., athletics, band, there are plenty of books that outline the cuts and explain the process from the college side. The list goes on an on. What our children had were unique stories, including failures and learning outside of school and experiences that they shared in their essays and applications.

One story of a friend who travelled an hour and a half each way every day for high school to be in the perfect place to go to UVA. The family made a lot of sacrifices both financially and personally to ensure this child's future. The composition of her freshman class included a legacy of a woman who was one of the first to graduate from UVA when it went coed. and who had given back speaking at the university, attending alumni functions, etc., etc., She was a legacy of the high school as well. Her prep school only had 1-2 admits to UVA every year, and despite stellar grades and scores, the daughter did not get into UVA, however the middle of the pack student did...The constitution of her prep school class did her in. Had she been applying from her local high school with the same kind of accomplishments she would have stood a better chance of admission, and her family would not have been out the thousands of dollars and hours that they invested thinking that a "good" school would make a difference.

The good news for todays high school students is that although applications are rising, the number of students in the birth year is declining, making the pond just slightly better than 2006 when our first students were looking and the reboom was at its peak.

Thank you for the shout out NYU fan, Cat will be a 2013 grad at Yankee Stadium.

Posted by: debbyd1 | March 8, 2011 1:53 PM | Report abuse

And the headline here is misleading we didn't hide their test scores either.. we just told them they were in the drawer, and they were not a measure of what they could accomplish in life.

Posted by: debbyd1 | March 8, 2011 2:00 PM | Report abuse

A "..model likely to succeed at a general scale" (fourth comment above) is a futile objective where the aim is admission to a first-rate college. There are good reasons the most-coveted degrees are granted in America. One of them is that admissions committees are always on the lookout for self-directed students: those whose accomplishments do not occur at a general scale, those who have a chance to make unique contributions to scholarship, business, civic or artistic life.

Nonetheless, where the student has not achieved positive self-motivation and a B+ average or a remarkable extracurricular record by January of the sophomore year, strong positive and negative incentives to complete homework are in order. This is likely a student who really needs the homework and really needs external discipline.

There is a healthy demand for other-directed, incentive-sensitive people in corporate life. That might not be creative parents' dream. But those who obey make the economy run and usually avoid penury.

Posted by: c-u-r-m-u-d-g-e-o-n | March 8, 2011 3:16 PM | Report abuse

I'm not quite sure I understand the point of this article. So because they were never told about their SAT scores this has somehow helped them in life? I can't imagine trying to get into an academically competitive school without focusing on SAT's (wrong or right). The problem isn't testing, since we're tested all the time. It's being prepared that's the issue.

Posted by: spellett1 | March 8, 2011 4:15 PM | Report abuse

I don't get the whole "revolting" or "helicopter parenting" aspect at all. I think people are missing a very important point in this article. And that is, what is with the purple dinosaur?

Posted by: romerokc | March 8, 2011 10:16 PM | Report abuse

OK, I'll explain "revolting."

This is an article about the plight of private school children of middle-to-upper-middle class parents. Not only are the parents financially comfortable and supportive of their children (all good things), but they do the brunt of the work in the college admissions game so that they're kids don't have to stress or worry.

Not only that, but this is the eleventy-millionth story focused on the middle or upper-middle classes, both in this column and in the New York Times.

Meanwhile, back here among the poor slobs who don't matter, my 15-yo neighbor who recently arrives from South America is forced to repeat a math class for the sole reason that he's a recent arrival from South America. Unlike the English-speaking, Anglicized middle-class parents so prominently featured, my neighbor's mother cannot successfully lobby on his behalf.

A year and a half after arriving, he goes back to Colombia to get a better education.

Don't worry. This will not make the news.

Posted by: hainish | March 9, 2011 7:08 AM | Report abuse

The SAT isn't perfect by a long shot, but it's one of the few tools that allow apples-to-apples comparisons of applicants. High schools can vary widely in their grading criteria and the rigor of their coursework. What would get an "A" at school X might only earn a "C" at school Y. But a 2100 is a 2100 is a 2100.

The Ivy League schools are quite a bit more meritocratic then they were back pre-SAT. It used to be that they recruited pretty much exclusively from the New England prep schools like Exeter, Andover, Groton, etc. The SAT allowed them to find promising students outside of the traditional "feeder" schools.

Posted by: CrimsonWife | March 9, 2011 10:12 AM | Report abuse

I apologize if my "general scale" comment was unclear. I was really referring to "advocacy", that of Mr. Mathews, rather than to individual students or schools with extraordinary ambitions. I am asserting that pretending that results from flawed tests like SATs don't matter, and can profitably be hidden in drawers, is unlikely to result in beneficial consequences if practiced by the broad public, rather than a particular, successful, local family.

Posted by: BruceWilliamSmith | March 9, 2011 11:28 PM | Report abuse

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