The Ethical Dilemma: Guilty about Test Prep

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Feeling Guilty about Test Prep: I have a child getting ready to apply to college and she wants to get a tutor for the standardized college entrance exams. Very few of the other kids in her public high school can afford to do that, but we can, and we know many families who not only spend small fortunes on tutors, but say everyone in their private schools does the same. My child has always managed to get into the best public schools, including a high school that is known for sending students to good colleges, but most students in our city are in mediocre to failing schools.

Although I would never force test tutoring on my child, the fact that she desperately wants it makes me inclined to comply. But I feel that it is all so unfair. Most of her schoolmates can’t even consider anything but public in-state colleges because they probably won’t be able to compete for scholarships (because they didn’t get help to get high scores on the tests), whereas she’ll have a leg-up on scores that will help her get in, plus the resources to go wherever she is accepted regardless of financial aid. I just feel really queasy about the whole thing. But other than granting or denying my daughter this advantage, I feel that there’s really nothing I can do about this skewed system.


Dear Unfair,

So would you have your daughter restrict herself to public in-state schools (not that there’s anything wrong with them!) because many of her classmates have to? I understand your guilt, but rather than turn it against yourself or your child, I suggest you turn it into something more productive, such as activism. It’s not your fault that the system is the way it is, and that your child has advantages that other equally deserving children don’t. But the fact that it bothers you—that you are painfully aware of the inequity and are uncomfortable profiting from your own good fortune—is telling you to do something about it.

What can you do? Nothing that will change things overnight, but you can get active with organizations that seek to improve public schools, root out cultural and economic bias in standardized tests, shine a light on colleges that are genuinely trying to cultivate diversity and support disadvantaged kids (see the Frank Bruni column linked to above), pressure legislators to increase funding to needy schools and talented teachers, and so on.

There really is hope. The SAT has just been revised—in part because of criticism that it favored affluent, educated families (although the jury is out on whether the new test is an improvement). Increasing numbers of colleges are moving to “test optional” applications that don’t require SAT or ACT scores. Many colleges are getting very serious about giving kids all the funding they need to graduate without a mountain of debt, as well as preparing them for college-level work if they come from inadequate high schools. The inequities begin before kindergarten, at the preschool level, and keep going, so you could apply your efforts wherever you think you might be able to do the most good. Parents like you really can make a difference, as this recent news report demonstrates.

As for what to do with your own child right now, your instinct to comply with her wishes is good. Some kids get help from their parents or siblings or relatives or friends. Some get it from teachers who take them under their wing. Others pay for test prep, even homework help and assistance filling out college applications and essays. It’s a rat race, and just about no one really likes it, but that’s how it is right now, and you don’t need to berate yourself for seeking the best possible results for your own child in an imbalanced system you don’t like.

You can also take steps to get a healthier perspective on the mad dash to get into “the best” colleges. Bruni’s book, Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania is an excellent read for both you and your daughter at this juncture. Talk to your daughter about the issues, not to make her feel as anguished as you do, but to ensure she’s aware of (and grateful for) the advantages she personally enjoys in relation to the inequities and their repercussions throughout society. What happens with our nation’s educational (and career) system in the future will ultimately be up to the kids who are approaching college now.