Private School Entrance Exams: The Misnomer of “Verbal Reasoning”

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We can all relate to the stress of an progressively competitive 21st Century. Increasingly, I encounter panicked parents who fearfully insist that their children brutalize themselves in preparation for private school exams such as the SSAT or ISEE. Many are compelled to enroll their children in expensive private schools because they wholeheartedly believe private institutions offer a better education and the only shoo-in to the Ivy League. Simply put, this is not always the case. According to US News, the highest ranking K-12 schools are in fact public district and charter schools. Whitney High School, a public school, is 2016’s number one in the state of California and San Diego’s own Canyon Crest Academy, a San Dieguito Union High School District school, ranks number five. Furthermore, multiple studies, including  Christopher Lubienski’s 2013 publication, The Public School Advantage, discovered the following:

 

We analyzed instruction and performance for over 300,000 elementary and middle school students in 15,108 public, charter, and private schools. What we found surprised us. Students in public schools actually outperform those in private schools.

 

While many public schools clearly offer advantages, there are a number of private commuter or boarding schools known as “feeder” schools  to the Ivy Leagues, which are attractive to America’s elite because of their lengthy legacies and exclusivity. Few would argue that San Diego’s top private schools, Bishops and Francis Parker, are not top notch- they are. Nonetheless, these are not the sole avenues to America’s top tier universities. So, how is it possible that some families and even educators firmly believe that private schools, which typically cost $30,000-$40,000 annually, are the only option? Bluntly put, because they cost more, they must be better. Because the wealthiest families attend them, they must provide higher quality.

Therefore, flashcard after pointless flashcard, children are pressured to memorize and prepare for the “Verbal Reasoning,” a section of isolated vocabulary words that still remain on private school entrance exams. Generally, preparation for this section entails the rote memorization- not reasoning- of vocabulary words beyond the grade or developmental level students. As a result, as soon as students cease cramming for this synonym section of the test, most promptly forget the vocabulary they so vigorously inhaled.

Let’s look at an example from an ISEE Lower Level ERB practice guide:

PERPLEXED

(A) alarmed

(B) disgraced

(C) embarrassed

(D) puzzled

Certainly, if students by the third or fourth grade have learned Greek and Latin prefixes and roots, they can dissect certain words to guess at the meaning even if they don’t know the precise definition of the target word. For instance, the etymology of the word “perplexed” stems from the Greek root “perplexus,” which means “confused or entangled.” However, English is not merely Latin, but a “sponge” language that has also descended from ancient Anglo Germanic languages and numerous other linguistic influences. The correct answer, “puzzled,” actually developed from the medieval French word, “aposer.” If students happened to know the ancient French word, “aposer,” they may be able to identify the Latin root, “pos” or “to put.” However, knowledge of the root “pos” does not enable students to connect “pos” or to put directly to “perplexed.” 

The only way to really know the answer to this question like many on the ISEE is to memorize, memorize, and memorize as many vocabulary words without any context as possible. According to other standardized tests, including the college entrance exams, the SAT and ACT, as well as the CAASP, SBAC and other Common Core tests, have aptly disavowed this type of testing since memorization does not equate to higher level thinking. Furthermore, words without other words or context offer little meaning. Rather, single words work in “concert” (together, not a musical performance) with other words to convey the myriad of nuances and connotations or “shades” of meaning the incredible English language possesses.

The Verbal Reasoning section on private school entrance exams disservice our students because, in many cases, they destroy the confidence of many of our brilliant youth and  ineffectively measure intelligence and talent. In my 16 years of experience as an educator, not all K-12 private school students make the Ivy cut, and yet some students who attend public district and charter schools do; public school students can ultimately achieve academic excellence at the most noteworthy institutions of higher learning in the nation, including the University of CA Berkeley, Stanford, Princeton, and numerous others- no “Verbal Reasoning” required.

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