Aaron Lockman, "The PSAT is Written By Chimpanzees – If You Don’t Believe Me, Take It Yourself"

I will never pick up a pencil again. That is what I told myself today as I dutifully trudged home from the Preliminary SATs. However, I am probably wrong. I will probably pick up a pencil tomorrow, when my first-block teacher tells me to. That’s one thing about teenagers: despite all our shenanigans that we hate school, we will do anything our teachers tell us to do. Seriously. It’s like some biological imperative. If they tell us to write a 10-page paper on Attila the Hun’s military conquests, we will do it. If they tell us to write a 20-page paper on his bathroom habits, we will do it. If they tell us to smear ourselves with peanut butter and climb on the roof of the English building dancing the Hokey-Pokey, we will be skeptical at first, but then they’ll say the magic phrase “Your grade depends on it,” and we will do it. Likewise, if they tell us to sit in a classroom for two and a half hours taking a test written by laboratory chimpanzees, we will do it. We will, however, complain about it nonstop. That’s another thing: We LOVE complaining. All human beings need something to complain about to survive (otherwise we will mutate into Sane People from Outer Space), but teenagers just take the cake. You know how everybody needs sleep, but teenagers need more sleep than any other age group? It’s the same with complaining. If we don’t complain, our heads will explode. Sometimes, we will even go out of our way to have something to complain about. For instance: Today, at school, the only tools we needed were a #2 pencil and a calculator. This was mentioned to us several million times. “For the PSATs,” said the cheerful piece of paper we were handed in the assembly yesterday, “You will only need a #2 pencil and a calculator.” The teacher talking at the podium then told us this again. In fact, the sole purpose of the assembly seemed to be the teacher, standing in front of us and reading aloud the same piece of paper we all held in our laps, which was maybe five or six sentences at most. The teacher informed us (diverting from the piece of paper, which I thought was a brave move) that we didn’t even really need the calculator, as all the problems on the test could be solved without one. He also informed us that we didn’t really need the #2 pencil either, because we would be communicating with our test booklets via a kind of frenzied telepathy. Ha! I was of course kidding about that last part (not really). But where was I? Oh, yes, complaining. So: I came to school today carrying nothing but my sunglasses, a calculator, and (call me old-fashioned) a #2 pencil. And imagine my surprise when I looked around and saw that nearly half of my fellow classmates were lugging around their usual two-ton backpacks! Now, let me explain. Teenagers have this unspoken law that all backpacks must weigh as much as (at minimum) Australia. Often, in addition to our usual heavy textbooks, we throw in things like laptops, scooters, anvils, dumbbells, and little siblings. Sometimes we bring textbooks that we don’t even need that day, just to carry more weight. Why do we do this? Is it because we don’t want to take the trouble to sort out which textbooks to bring every day?  Is it because we enjoy the mere sensation of weight? Is it because our backpacks are the only places our siblings won’t badger us until we are genocidal? Nope. As I’m sure you’ve guessed at this point, it is because we love to complain. We can add backpacks to the never-ending list of things we can complain about, right up there with parents, teachers, homework, schoolwork, midterms, finals, reading, writing, how cold it is, how hot it is, not getting enough sleep, having to go to bed early. . . The list goes on. As you can see, most things on the list have a distinct opposite that is also on the list. Anyway, going back to my original topic, which was the PSATs. I’d almost forgotten about them. Ha! Ha ha ha ha (hysterical laughter). Where shall I start? Let’s start with math. The following is an actual test question from the practice booklet. A fish tank contains 25 trout, 10 bass, 15 perch, and no other kinds of fish. If one of these fish is to be chosen at random, what is the probability that the fish chosen will be a trout? The first thing that struck me when I read this is that it is ridiculously easy. If you have graduated from the third grade, you will know that 25 + 10 + 15 = 50 and that 25 is half of 50, and therefore the answer is ½. The second thing that struck me was that mathematics, despite its basis in logic, can at times be infuriatingly dumb. For instance, why would anybody “choose” a large trout from a fish tank? Is it dead? If so, why would anybody in their right mind stick their hand into a tub of dead fish and pull out a trout? Come to think of it, why would anybody stick their hand into a tank of LIVE fish and pull out a disgusting, flailing trout whose death they would then have to witness? And if the fish are alive, why are there fifty of them in the same tank? And even if somebody was crazy enough to “choose” a large fish from a tank, how would they do it “at random”? Would they close their eyes and stick their hand in? Because that would be even more disturbing, in my opinion. Moving on. Literature is not something that comes easily to the monkeys who write this thing either. They select passages at random, write seemingly mindless questions about it, and then edit the passage so that it fits the questions. For example, take the following, perfectly normal excerpt from a short story I made up. Betsy Hart had only been working as a flight attendant for two weeks, but she had a head for the job and had picked up the basics in no time. The senior attendant said that she had promise. For instance, Betsy knew how to maneuver the beverages cart in just the right way so that the faulty front wheels didn’t send it crashing into a seat. She knew how to tell the polite and quiet people from the annoying and unhappy people just by glancing. She knew that people with window seats generally became impolite less easily than people in the middle seats. And she knew that babies, with their unending cries for food and their shameless need for constant entertainment, were the bane of any flight attendant’s existence. Not that hard to understand, right? What the SAT people do is that they simplify the language so much that a four-year old could understand it, if it weren’t for the randomly placed words from the SAT Vocab Book scattered throughout. On the PSAT, that passage would look something like this: The following passage is adapted from a humorous short story written in 2010. (By “adapted,” they mean “edited to within an inch of its life.”) Betty Sue had only been a flight attendant for a galvanized amount of time, but she was already gregarious. The senior attendant said she was ominous. Betty knew how to push the beverage cart in a magnanimous way. She knew how to tell the altercation-inducing people from the emaciated people with libations. She had an avarice for middle seats, but she was ambivalent to the erudite people in the window seats. And she knew that babies, who intrepidly were ignominies, were an anathema and should be castigated. One look at this passage in a test booklet, and I guarantee you’ll skip ahead to the questions and start answering them as quickly as possible, glancing back to try and filch the answers from the passage without actually reading it. God knows that’s how I spent all of today. The questions, however, are hardly any better. They say things like: “In line 3, the use of the word ‘magnanimous’ to describe Betty’s handling of the cart indicates that (A) Betty is good at pushing beverage carts, (B) Betty is a friendly person whom you would like to be your flight attendant, (C) Betty’s name is supposed to be Betsy, event though both names could be variations on the name Elizabeth, (D) Betty is hot, and (E) Betty hates every single passenger on the airplane, and she wishes she could make them all do the PSAT for the duration of the three-hour flight.” So you’re answering a question to which every single one of the answers is correct in some way or other. And you’re not even sure if the chimpanzees had a correct answer in mind when they wrote it. And this train of though gets your brain tied in a knot. And then you finally snap, scream that you can’t take it anymore, and run to the top of the English building smearing yourself with peanut butter and dancing the Hokey-Pokey. Because that assignment is two weeks overdue anyway. So overall, the PSAT is a waste of time that is vitally important to our future. Which pretty much describes the whole high school system, if you think about it. The best moral I can think of to pull from this experience is that sometimes, when things get rough and you wonder why the world is abysmally stupid, you just have to grit your teeth, get it done, get it out, and get it over with. You’ll never eliminate all the stupidity in the world, so in the meantime you just have to make the best of it. Be magnanimous. If you do, you’ll be pushing the beverage cart of resilience down the airplane aisle of life in no time at all. And if you don’t know what ‘magnanimous’ means, then do what I do: forget about it. Aaron Lockman, 15, Thornton Academy