The metal doors of the auditorium opened like the jaws of a beast, its four-walled stomach digesting the students trickling within. He was strangely dizzy. It was as though the metal levers on his wristwatch (chosen, of course, for this occasion alone) had suddenly slowed, as though the usual glow of the fluorescent light panels had abruptly turned into a stinging glare. 8:00. Damn it, he thought. I really need a Red Bull. He had been checking that very wristwatch for the fourth time, not searching for the minute hand but rather for a confirmation that yes, he could still read. It was at 8:00 that the beast turned silent. Doors clicked shut, cell phones turned to airplane mode, whispers died. All life begins, at some point or another, in the stomach. He knew that. But it was the womb of the local high school’s auditorium, when the SAT scantron fluttered in his hands, that changed life completely.
Night Two: In the Reading Test, students will encounter questions like those asked in a lively, thoughtful, evidence-based discussion.
Five sentences. Five sentences into the passage, and he still had absolutely no clue what anything meant. Read the sentence again, a voice inside him muttered. And so he did exactly that, inaudibly mouthing the metaphor in hopes that his tongue would decipher the passage better than he did. Nothing. Then underline it. Five weeks of SAT bootcamp practice over a generally depressing summer break had taught him the importance of underlining. Even if the mind was blank, there was the small consolation that at least the paper was not. He continued reading, registering absolutely nothing. It was an unfortunate winter afternoon that his mother had seen the advertisement for the bootcamp Scotch-taped to the window of an Indian grocery store. The “T” in “SAT” was blurred with a bright yellow turmeric stain, but the phone number at the bottom read perfectly. Then it was settled, all of his protests drowned by the single reminder that his distant cousin Raju got a 1600 last year. “Arrey, do you want to be a failure?” his mother demanded.
Night Three: The SAT Writing and Language Test asks you to be an editor and improve passages that were written especially for the test—and that include deliberate errors.
Failure. “The preceding sentence should not be included because it fails to address the main topic of the passage.” This answer is almost always right, he thought, his pencil tapping against the Scantron. And even if it wasn’t, there were three more passages to complete in the next twenty minutes. He began his usual, dark blotch of a bubble on the Scantron sheet until a shiver ran down his spine. What was the line number? Were there any lines on this thing? Numbers etched in black ink began clawing at his eyes, his vision swirling in inexplicable panic. 32, 33, 34, 35… the order of the passage-based questions yielded no answer to his lost mistake. The unfilled Scantron bubbles turned into small foaming mouths, each gaping ravenously. He screamed. And yet no bewildered student looked up from their own exam, no perplexed proctor rushed to his aid. He was alone, all alone with the ticking of the ever-dutiful stopwatch twelve seats away.
Night Four: The SAT Math Test covers a range of math practices, with an emphasis on problem solving, modeling, using tools strategically, and using algebraic structure.
4x+3y = 12, 8x+6y = 24… From kindergarten to sixth grade, math had been fairly innocuous, and then its untimely marriage to the alphabet changed everything. “x” and “y” ruthlessly plagued his pencil until the sheet was covered in more eraser marks than answers. He charlied out, (the unique practice of marking the choice c in a multiple choice format) unwilling to lock horns with advanced algebra again. “Brenda is walking to the convenience store…,” he read. It’s another stupid word problem, I’m never going to finish. “She stops by the bazaar to buy three kilos of aloo and five packets of masala chai.” Wait. What? When did the SAT get so globalized? “Assuming that Brenda did not make other stops during her journey, how long is it going to take for her to realize that she’s missing the final season of Sasural Simar Ka?” Mom? How did she follow me to the SAT? When in doubt, skip a question.
The timer went off, quiet and yet obnoxious. Distraught, he waited for the beeping to slowly die, for a proctor to half-scream at him to put his pencil down, but there was nothing. He looked up, and realized the timer was gone and in its place was a laughing Raju, snickering at his failure of a cousin. He blinked. The noise had turned into nine Bollywood songs playing at the same time. Head in his hands, he lucidly tried to fathom the unfathomable until all sound was replaced by the guttural yawn of the beast, a booming echo: “Arrey, do you want to be a failure?”
It’s About the Real World. To answer some questions you’ll need to use several steps—because in the real world a single calculation is rarely enough to get the job done.
He awoke to the feeling of morning daylight spilling into his eyes like seeds of grain. The pillow, wet with nervous sweat, remained the sole evidence of his silent torment. Dreams. The sheer clarity of the images etched into his mind nearly stopped him from registering the comfort of his own bedroom walls. 8:00. His eyes settled on the “1600 Guaranteed” prep textbook beneath a vibrating alarm clock. Somewhere, between those pages, was a comfort that had been lost, a gnawing insecurity that evaded his better judgement. The stench of standardized testing had worked its way into the bottom of his subconscious, where it could not be fought nor ignored. He drowsily flipped through the prep book, its hollow promises an echo of his dreams and a reminder of a (perhaps) much more terrifying reality.
Kanchan Naik is a rising junior (right in the middle of SAT prep) at The Quarry Lane School in Dublin, California. When she’s not having her own nightmares about standardized testing, she is most likely untangling her earphones or looking for something that happens to be — much like herself — lost.