Charlotte Mason and the SAT

Charlotte Mason and the SAT

I trusted the method. I bought the story that education was for life, not for a job, or a college, or a test score. And I bought the other part of the story—that if you follow Charlotte Mason’s method, your children will develop a love for learning, and they will do better at a job, a college, or a test score. So I didn’t worry. I put the SAT out of my mind until the time was right: just after my son’s sophomore year in homeschool high school, after he had finished algebra 2. I had taught my son math the entire way. I knew that he knew. And that was supposed to be enough for the SAT.

I trusted the method. But still I chose to be prudent. I figured some test preparation in junior year made sense. I would start with a diagnostic test. I sent away for a test from an SAT prep company. My son took it, and I sent in the answer sheet.

A few days later, I had to travel to Copenhagen for business. For my last night, I decided to stay near the airport. I ended up in a hotel that seemed to be in the middle of an industrial area. Night crept in, and I found myself in the darkness, in what felt like the middle of nowhere, thousands of miles from home. From that hotel room I was to take the call from the SAT test prep company, to go over my son’s results.

The representative read the scores to me, and I was devastated. I wanted to crumble to the floor. The method had failed me, the method had let me down. My son wanted to be a mechanical engineer. He told me what college he wanted to go to. With these scores, it was completely out of reach. I had made a terrible mistake. I had failed. There in the darkness, in what felt like the middle of nowhere, I nearly gave up hope.

I signed up my son for the SAT prep class. We couldn’t find an in-person class that worked with his schedule, so we decided to sign up for an online class. As it turned out, it was a great choice. All the class sessions were recorded. My son would participate in the live class session, and then the next day I would watch the video. I would examine the exercises. I would analyze. I would study. I would learn.

I began to discover that the SAT is not a test of mastery. It is not a test designed to identify all of the students who have achieved competence in algebra and geometry. Rather, it is designed to generate a bell curve. It is designed to filter out a very small set of students who achieve a very high score, even if they have never taken calculus and trigonometry. It is not about mastery; it is about problem-solving, puzzles, creative thinking, and tricks. I watched the videos, and I learned the tricks.

Writing was another story. My son had been narrating for more than a decade—first orally, then in writing. His narrations were always based on what he had just read or heard. Naturally, since I trusted the method. But the SAT didn’t want a narration. It gave the student a “prompt”—a question that the student had never seen before. And the student had 25 minutes to write an essay about it, supported by evidence from history, literature, and life. Apparently it is testing the student’s ability to think on the spot, and generate a lot of words.

I got a book on the SAT essay test. I learned the structure and the formula. Not surprisingly, my son’s math score was higher than his writing score—after all, he wanted to be an engineer. But he needed a decent score in both to get into the college he wanted to go to. We sat down one day and I explained to him the formula. Using a list of 20 prompts, we drilled on how to write a thesis and how to write supporting paragraphs. We didn’t have much time. He was going to take the SAT in two months, and then he had to get ready for three SAT subject tests (math 2, chemistry, and physics).

The test prep instructor said that the hardest part of the essay test is coming up with evidence. The instructor said to pick a book or an episode of history and know it really well. She said to memorize a few quotes and anecdotes from the book, and drop them in to the essay. She said to find some way to tie the anecdotes into the essay. For many students, the hardest part is coming up with this evidence.

The prep class assigned some homework, but I didn’t feel it was enough to reinforce the concepts. I made the test prep part of our homeschool routine, and as my son’s teacher, I took full responsibility for the process. I added my own assignments and drills to reinforce what the instructor was presenting.

My son took the SAT three times in three consecutive months. His third and final session was almost exactly five months after the diagnostic test that left me in despair. The Educational Testing Service is very worried about cheating. They reportedly have triggers. It is supposed to be very hard to increase your score. It is considered nearly impossible to increase your score by 300 points, so when a student increases a score by that margin, it is apparently considered suspicious. And of course, there is the most important rule of all: you must take the test alone. You can’t bring a friend.

The day came for my son’s third and final SAT test. They checked his ID and it was very clear that he had no friends with him. But actually, he had been developing relationships all his life. Because education is the science of relations, he had relationships with Napoleon Bonaparte and with Genghis Khan. He had friends from literature and friends from the Bible. He was not alone when he took that test. He brought a great cloud of witnesses with him.

Amazingly, his essay prompt was to write about whether or not it is a good idea to get input from other people before making a decision. In a certain sense, he was asked about whether Mason’s 19th principle is valid. He was asked to support his assertion from history, literature, and experience. He drew upon his friends in history. He wrote about Napoleon.

He was quite relaxed when I saw him after the test. When the scores came in, my engineering son had flipped the outcome. His writing score turned out higher than his math. I guess the ETS liked what he had to say about seeking advice from others.

Then I compared his composite score with that diagnostic test from five months before. That score that had me in despair. His score had increased by 570 points. Nearly double the seemingly impossible hurdle of increasing by 300.

A few months later he applied to the college of his choice and was given a merit scholarship. I am so happy for him. But I am even happier about something else. When it all started years ago, I had two choices. I could either spend 16 years preparing him for a test and five months preparing him for life. Or I could spend 16 years preparing him for life and five months preparing him for a test. I chose the latter. And I’m glad I did.

I trusted the method. It worked for me. My son is ready for life.

13 Replies to “Charlotte Mason and the SAT”

  1. Charlotte talks somewhere about the passports our society demands and I think of the SAT this way — it is something we need to get but should not take more time and energy than necessary. I have one who has done the SAT and one who will this year but has done the PSAT. My experience was that they needed some test prep and instruction in how to take such a test (they had never done standardized tests) but that this could be done in a few months in the run up to the test. I actually found that their scores are relatively accurate reflections of who I think they are academically. I will say the essay part is now optional though so I did not have my son take it, knowing it would be the weakest part for him. Most colleges don’t even seem to want it. I am also pleased with some of the changes the college board has implemented in the last year or so as they have updated the test again. They use more real books for the reading part. My dd did one practice test that had a passage from Jane Austen’s Emma which she had read.

    1. Roberta,

      Thank you for your comment. My son took the last SAT test before the format was changed and the essay became optional. And I agree with you that after adequate preparation, the scores do seem to reflect the student’s academic ability. There came a point at which I stopped working on test preparation with my son because I realized that it was not going to make any further impact on his score.


  2. Thank you for sharing this story! There is so much anxiousness out there about a CM Education and the student’s ability to perform well on these tests. I often tell parents that these two things are apples and oranges – very different things. Test prep may be needed (in most cases but not all), therefore we should equip our students with either test prep books, tutoring, or whatever is needed. The education we are providing them with will indeed prepare them for life – something test prep can never do. It will also give them the relationships to draw from to do well on said tests. And just where did his perseverance come from, anyway?
    Teaching from Peace,

  3. This is a wonderful story to read – thank you so much for sharing it. It confirms my suspicions about my own test taking abilities and education. I went the typical public school route and was a test taking master with excellent grades, but upon entry to the world I discovered how woefully uneducated I am. As a home educator I strive to improve the outcome for my children. Thankful everyday to hear the wisdom of those who have already crossed the big hurdles. Thanks again!

  4. Art, appreciated you sharing the story of the SAT journey. Most CMers will have to make this journey with their child at some point. Our daughter had never taken a test, so we felt a tutor was a good choice–and it was. However, even though she writes very well, the essay was a challenge because it was timed. We had not factored in practice at working quickly. Nevertheless, she scored so high she was able to get a scholarship. I believe supporting our scholars with some form of preparation helps a great deal.

  5. This is a message that needs to be heard. It’s not just about the test part or the getting into college part…it’s SO much more than that. Thank you for sharing y’all’s story. I will share it far and wide.

  6. What I noticed primarily is the supreme effort which you, Dad, made to address this challenge. Talk about a call and responding to responsibility ; well done parent. Your son is lucky to have you.

  7. I have a similar and yet very different story, Art. You know I homeschooled several of my adopted siblings. One of my sisters, whom I homeschooled for her last six years of school, and who lived with us through high school, simply hated school. Even though it was Miss Mason’s lovely curriculum that I was using. She is the quietly contrary sort, and often I suspected she wasn’t partaking of the whole feast but was feeding some of it to the dog under the table!

    When she graduated, she very much wanted to go to cosmetology school, which I supported. It was the one thing she was passionate about. However, after her high school graduation, she met a boy, and she decided she needed to go to college – to become a teacher, no less! There was a little bit of peer[‘s parent] pressure going on there.

    So, she took the ACT and got a 14 on it. I was humbled. I realized that maybe her hatred of school was because it was super hard for her. I felt guilty for continually coaxing and cajoling her along. Maybe she really was doing her best. But she didn’t give up. She purchased a book with 6 ACT practice tests, and with a little tutoring, she took the ACT again ONE MONTH later. She got a 27! I was speechless!

    You are right when you said, “I could either spend 16 years preparing him for a test and five months preparing him for life. Or I could spend 16 years preparing him for life and five months preparing him for a test. I chose the latter. And I’m glad I did.”

    I too am glad I spent six years preparing my sister for a full life. She might not have looked like the model Charlotte Mason student, but she is a person, and it was a precious gift that I was able to give her none-the-less. I feel sure it changed her life for the better.

    In the end, she quit college and went to cosmetology school, where she will graduate next month. 😀 She’s doing well, and I’m proud of her.

  8. Thank you for the much needed encouragement! I’m wondering what resources you used to prepare for the SAT? I know the library offers books but maybe you used something better online? Thank you!

  9. What a blessing for both you and your son, Art, that you were willing to sacrificially give your time for the purpose of helping him navigate a system seemingly bent on exclusion. The dedication of both you and Barbara to educating your children for life, not a test is truly a legacy with lasting benefits!

    I’ll pass this on to my DIL whose oldest is entering public school for the first time as a high school freshman. He was one of the very few students (and the first homeschool student ever) accepted into a very elite academic program at a large school. His focus will be on engineering which is one of three focus areas offered.

    During a recent visit to their home, we were able to give him a collection of the works of Robert Louis Stevenson, and a few hours later, I found him sprawled out on his bedroom floor beginning this vast adventure! Thanks to the excellent books read, discussed and written about throughout his school years coupled with his love of the Bible, I have no doubt that he’ll be prepared for life ahead. However, your lessons about the benefits to both the student and the parent using the online SAT prep courses will be very helpful!

    Thank you for sharing!

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