Back in 1972, baby boomer Joyce Maynard — now an acclaimed writer, then a bright-eyed Yale undergraduate — claimed in The New York Times that, “every generation thinks it’s special.” To her, the baby boomers were special because of what they missed, not what they received. To me, a tail-end millennial, despite charges of self-absorption and laziness, my generation feels special for our unfailing idealism. And for years, I watched the children that followed, Generation Z, with anticipation. That, amidst an increasingly progressive milieu, they would bring forth a culture of greater tolerance. In some sense they are: marching for gun control, using gender-neutral pronouns, reflecting on income inequality. Yet amongst themselves, I’ve observed them as the generation, more than others, that is wrought by a culture of comparison.
This became palpably clear to me one Wednesday night in July when I was sitting outside an ice cream store in West Bloomfield. A group of high school students had gathered there that night, too. With fluorescent lights overhead, they used little spoons to eat sprinkle-flecked ice cream. I thought I had them figured out — mapping their expressions, ideas, and hopes onto my own experience in high school almost a decade prior. Were they exchanging stories of first love and heartbreak, a frustrating parent, or making a wide-eyed foray into questioning the meaning of life? All I heard, however, was a quiet mumble from a girl at the edge of a group. “My score didn’t go up again.”
For years, college entrance testing was used to assess a student’s fitness for college, equip them with skills they lacked, and serve as a benchmark for nationwide academic comparison. The two exams high school students take are the ACT and the SAT. The ACT, which once staked a claim over the Midwest and the South, is a three-hour exam scored on a 36-point scale. It is comprised of four sections: English, math, reading, and science, along with an optional essay. The average ACT score for students across Michigan in 2018 was 24.4. That is one of the highest in the country. The SAT, once most popular on the coasts, has recently gained traction across the country. Since being reformulated in 2016, the test is scored on a 1600-point scale — between 2005 to its overhaul by the College Board in 2016, the test was scored out of 2400 points — and evaluates students’ skills in reading comprehension, math, and writing and grammar over three hours with an optional essay. The average score among high schoolers throughout the state is around 1000.
For so many high school students today, the discrepancy between a 1300 and a 1350, is not just the difference between a college admission or rejection. It seems to be the difference between societal approval or dismissal. And it begs the question: How much of the burden of collective progress is being borne by the youngest shoulders?
One of the most pervasive traits of our present is widespread access to information. As a result, parents of high school students today are more informed about their children’s post-graduate options than generations of parents before them. For Bindu Nambiar, whose son is headed to the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University, that’s the source of test anxiety. “I worry because I don’t want my son’s score to limit him from choosing from all of the options available. That way, he can be accepted to the college that makes him the happiest,” she says. Melissa Corsi, a fourth grade teacher in the Rochester Hills School District who has seen two sons through college and one through medical school, agrees that the heightened access to information correlates with parental tension. “When we were planning for our boys to go to college, my husband and I set the goal that they would go to an in-state college because we felt that they were all very reputable and would prepare them well for any graduate school. But we are in a much more connected world, and in other people’s eyes, now, we may have seemed to be selling them short because they weren’t applying to, say, Ivy League schools.” she says.
The greater demands on parents are naturally compounding the worries of their children. “There’s so much family pressure because you are being compared to your cousin that got a certain score,” adds Parvathi Nagappala, a junior at Troy High School. Nagappala has been spending almost every day this summer at Kabir’s Prep, a tutoring center known for increasing students’ scores by an average of 5 points on the ACT, and an average of 287 points on the SAT through rigorous methods that include a biweekly practice test, near-daily optional review lessons, and a grading system that puts the pressure on performance even during preparation. Mally A.C.T. in West Bloomfield, which operates by more traditional methods, increases students’ scores by an average of 1.5 points on the ACT. “Kabir is really popular with a lot of parents because his methods are so effective,” Nagappala says.
These pressures are only exacerbated by this generation’s prevalent use of social media. It makes comparison a second nature. “If you go on Reddit the day ACT scores come out, you will see tons of kids posting about their 35 or 36. So you’re not going to want to post about your 29 even though it’s a score that can get you into the vast majority of schools out there,” says Eric Mally, who has been running Mally A.C.T. for the past 14 years. He says he saw an uptick in test anxiety about five years ago, and in some cases, it’s become so extreme that a student may resort to lying about their scores just to feel socially validated. “A lot of times we get students that say, ‘Hey, my buddy, Jimmy got a 32.’ He’s posting about it, and we tutored Jimmy, so we know that he didn’t get a 32, because we were just on the phone with his mom talking about why he didn’t.” Gowrav Mangipudi, a senior at Northville High School concurs, “There’s definitely a part of the stress that’s just about bragging rights.”
I too, was one of these high schoolers. I believed, doggedly at the time, that my self-worth was inextricably tied to my academic achievements. My grades, my test scores, my college acceptances had the power to prove what I inherently could not — they were my crutches of self-confidence. And I worry that it was only because I met my own expectations, that I now feel comfortable reflecting on how damaging that mindset can be. Until now, my only consolation was that when I was in high school that mindset felt like an anomaly. Now, it’s a ubiquity. And untangling my self-worth from my external achievements is something I’m still working on. It’s a process that’s not linear, and the earlier it starts, the more difficult it can be to correct.