Jewish Journal


October 16, 2003

Pencils Ready? Let the Stress Begin


After working with two private tutors last fall, Aliza J. Sokolow took the SAT college entrance exam in January. Devastated by her test results, the Milken Community High School junior studied on her own and took the test again in April.

"My scores went up insanely and I was beyond happy with them," said the 17-year-old, who is now a senior. So, why is Sokolow taking the college entrance exam a third time this month?

"I could still do better," said the Advanced Placement (AP) student from Encino, who is also a competitive swimmer, editor of the school paper, a student government member and founder of the student judiciary committee.

Sokolow is just one of many Southland juniors and seniors who are taking and retaking the SAT in the coming months. While college entrance exam anxiety is traditionally a societywide phenomenon in the United States, some argue that Jewish day school students face bigger challenges than the average high school student. In addition to the pressure to get good grades, take AP classes and participate in a range of extracurricular activities, day school students must deal with the added stress of completing both secular subjects and a Judaic studies curriculum.

"With a dual curriculum, the course load is very heavy and the SAT doesn't help," said Dr. Jerry Friedman, Shalhevet High School president and educational consultant. Seeing his students become withdrawn and anxiety-ridden during exam time both worries and saddens the administrator.

"I understand the rationale. With grade inflation, the colleges really have to do something to get a fair estimate of how the kids really do," Friedman said. "If there was a way to mitigate the problem, I'd look forward to a solution."

In the meantime, the SAT I: Reasoning Test, a multiple-choice exam consisting of a verbal and math section, continues to be the standard, although some colleges also accept the equally feared ACTs. The SAT, which has been around for 77 years, is administered by the Educational Testing Service (ETS) and sponsored by the College Board, a nonprofit educational association in New York. While the SAT I has been modified many times since its inception, the most recent changes came in 1994 when antonyms were eliminated, the verbal section focused more on reading, nonmultiple-choice questions appeared on the math section and calculators were permitted. Beginning March 2005, the SAT I will undergo more changes, including the addition of an essay section. Some schools also require students to take the SAT II: Subject Tests, 22 different tests offered in literature, history, mathematics, science and foreign languages. All tests are offered seven times a year.

Wendy Mogel, a local clinical psychologist, parent educator and school consultant said that parent pressure is a key component in causing SAT stress.

"[Kids] are so worried about disappointing their parents," Mogel said. "They feel their parents' mood, marriage and faith in God relies on their SAT score."

Unfortunately, this anxiety can have an adverse effect and cause bright students to either give up or perform poorly.

"[The parents'] intentions are good," Mogel said. "[They] want their children to have every opportunity. It's just backfiring."

Havva Eisenbaum, a Westside SAT tutor who has worked with a number of day school students, has also experienced a fair share of parental nagging.

"I had parents who were livid if their kid didn't see an improvement over the last two weeks [of tutoring]," she said. "They'd want me to give their kids more homework."

On the other hand, Eisenbaum said that many of her students put the pressure on themselves.

Some educators speculate that the push for Jewish students to succeed is a historical phenomenon.

"From way back, education was always so important in our culture," Friedman said. "I think that's how the Jews survived."

But even some of the most highly motivated students feel the constant focus on academic success prevents kids from living in the now.

"Growing up in a private school, there's always been a lot of pressure and you're forced to grow up too early," said Chana Ickowitz, a junior at Milken. "From early on, people are talking about far into the future. We had college counseling back in 10th grade."

There's no denying that many high-performing private schools often achieve status through high college test scores. With 90 percent of its senior class applying to four-year universities, 15 percent of whom are applying to Ivy League schools, Tamar Gelb, a college guidance counselor at Yeshiva University High School of Los Angeles insists that the school itself puts little pressure on the students.

"The test pressure is a societal thing," Gelb said. "I don't think it's school based."

Adding to the stress is the seemingly endless supply of SAT preparation courses and private tutors.

"The competition is so intense that what used to be considered a terrific score is now considered competitive," said Fedora Nick, an attorney and managing director of the National Bar Review (NBR), which offers NBR for the SAT. The company, which has prepared California Bar Exam graduates for 20 years, hopes to take advantage of the cutthroat SAT arena by creating a niche market.

"We're looking to focus on the elite high school students, many of whom attend the Jewish high schools," Nick said.

Renee Spurge, the assistant college counselor at Milken estimates that 80-90 percent of students take some kind of SAT preparation class outside of school.

Still, not every Jewish high school student will be a basket case come exam time.

"My standardized test scores are never that great," said Becky Dab, a junior at Shalhevet, who is currently considering a career in athletic training and plans to take the SAT in April.

"Basically, she'll do how she does," said John Dab, Becky's father. "We want her to do the best she can and we'll probably try to get her some coaching or training. Her school performance hasn't been such that she's going to a top-tier school. We know our child and what's appropriate for her."

Preparing to retake the test this month, Miri Cypers, a senior at Milken, is also relatively calm.

"I've been working hard for a long time to prepare for the test, but I'm not nervous about taking it," the 17-year-old said.

Meanwhile, Sokolow, who said she is "aiming high" in terms of college choices, continues to thrive on her self-induced pressure and the high expectations of her competitive school environment.

"One thing about the SAT that gets me down is that it doesn't measure your intelligence," Sokolow said. "It's [about] learning how to take a test. I'd much rather go to a school that looks at me as a person and not a number."

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