PSAT Panic: The Weight of Competition
Rather than lounging at home in a Netflix induced coma, a majority of sophomores spent Monday, April 16th in a classroom, pencils in hand, test booklets cracked open, the clock ticking incessantly behind them. Their rainy day off from school was occupied by the Practice ACT, a test similar to the Practice SAT that they took in October, the goal of which is to help them determine which test they should take when applying to college. The scores of the PACT and PSAT do not matter: no admissions officer will ever see them, no college transcript will ever bear them. However, despite their virtual meaninglessness, a sense of competition surrounding these scores is acutely felt by many members of the sophomore grade.
While PACT scores have not yet been released, the December day when PSAT scores were emailed out was one filled with anxious chatter. The topic was more widely discussed in the sophomore grade than almost anything else at the time.
“I remember not even wanting to see my test scores during the school day,” said Angelica Sang (‘20). “It didn’t really matter that much to me, but then I was badgered by people to open the email and tell them what my score was.”
Those scores creeping from the privacy of our inboxes into the publicity of our classrooms made the environment of Packer, which is supposed to feel comfortable and safe, a stressful one for some students.
“The day that the PSAT scores came out, people were asking everyone, ‘What did you get? I did better than you, I got this, I got that,’” Xander Guarna (‘20) explained. “It just creates this vibe that’s very uncomfortable, first of all, but also unhealthy.”
Upper School college counselors Nila Fortune and Lisa Shambaugh were shocked to hear of the competition that had circulated around PSAT scores. They begged the question of why the competition surrounding the PSAT scores differed from that of normal grades. Their assumption was that sophomores had no sense of how to interpret their score, or of what an “okay” score to get on the PSAT was, and turned to their classmates in order to alleviate some of that anxiety by using other’s scores to better understand their own.
Sophomores also mentioned the feelings of academic inferiority or superiority that can accompany learning the scores of your peers.
When asked if the competition surrounding PSAT and PACT scores has the potential to affect a student’s confidence levels, Alexi Judge (‘20) pointed out that “if you’re comparing yourself to someone who scores way better than you, and you’re in the same classes, you all of the sudden feel academically inferior, when really you may just have different learning techniques.” Alexi continued by saying that the sense of pride one may have taken in their scores could potentially be stripped from them when comparing with their classmates.
Unlike grades, PSAT scores are entirely objective, which may have contributed to the heightened score sharing. However, despite their objectivity, the scores of standardized tests are not an accurate marker of intelligence.
Both Nila and Lisa were secure in their belief that standardized tests, whether practice or not, are not an authentic reflection of a student’s aptitude. To feel academically superior because of your score on a standardized test would be, in Nila’s opinion, “misguided.”
“At least from our perspective, there is not always a correlation between amazing scores and an outstanding student,” Nila continued. “The quality and depth of your thinking is certainly not reflected in those scores.”
While it is undeniable that Packer students care deeply for their peers and rarely have conversations with the intention of hurting one another, we can sometimes allow our internal anxieties to dictate our interactions.
In this school where, Xander explains, “grades are everything,” we always feel a pressure to be the best; for sophomores, the prospect of college has served as an additional reminder of the necessity to demonstrate our academic competence. The college process is an inherently competitive one, and as a result produces an environment that is sometimes predicated on the damaging comparison of ourselves to our classmates and friends.
“There’s always a sense of kids wanting to prove their academic superiority,” Alexi concluded earnestly. When one person feels superior, though, another feels inferior by definition.