Book Talk: THE PERFECT SCORE PROJECT, by Debbie Stier

the perfect score project book debbie stierThe Perfect Score Project: Uncovering the Secrets of the SAT
Debbie Stier
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Harmony (February 25, 2014), Hardcover (ISBN 0307956679 /
9780307956675)
Nonfiction: memoir/self-help/education, 304 pages

A version of this review was previously published in Shelf Awareness for Readers (March 4, 2014). Shelf Awareness provided me with a publisher-furnished galley to facilitate the review, and compensated me for the review they received and posted.

The Perfect Score Project chronicles Debbie Stier’s year of exploring a variety of test preparation strategies as she sat for the SAT seven times, with the goal of learning how to help her son Ethan prepare for his own college-entrance exams. Stier knew that Ethan’s ability to obtain merit-based financial aid would depend on high scores on the standardized tests, but she didn’t know how to help him prepare for them. Her last experience with the SAT had been nearly thirty years earlier, and an extensive test-prep industry had sprouted since then. Ethan’s mom was going to have to do a lot of homework herself before Ethan got anywhere near the SAT.

Stier tried a different study method before each test, from personal tutoring to online learning to self-directed practice using official College Board materials. The Perfect Score Project discusses the pros and cons of them all, with the verdict on each method’s effectiveness rendered by the test scores she got after using it. The book offers many helpful insights about the testing process to parents of the college-bound—few of whom are likely to go to Stier’s lengths, honestly—as well as to prospective test-takers themselves.

Stier’s own evaluation of her SAT experience weighs its effects on her personal growth and relationship with her son at least as heavily as her test scores, and the story in The Perfect Score Project rests in that. While what she did comes across at times as a particularly intense example of “helicopter parenting” and readers might not agree with either her tactics or her conclusions, she offers them some very useful information in a rather unusual package.

Book description, from the publisher’s website

The Perfect Score Project is both a toolbox of fresh college-prep tips and an amusing snapshot of parental love and wisdom colliding with teenage apathy.

It all began as an attempt by Debbie Stier to help her high-school age son, Ethan, who would shortly be studying for the SAT. Aware that Ethan was a typical teenager (i.e., completely uninterested in any test) and that a mind-boggling menu of test-prep options existed, she decided – on his behalf — to sample as many as she could to create the perfect SAT test-prep recipe.

Debbie’s quest turned out to be an exercise in both hilarity and heartbreak as she took the SAT seven times in one year and in-between “went to school” on standardized testing. Here, she reveals why the SAT has become so important, the cottage industries it has spawned, what really works in preparing for the test and what is a waste of time.

From Chapter One:

“I’m a forty-eight-year-old mother of two teenagers, and this whole crazy ‘perfect score project’ started out as a scheme to rescue my kid from . . . sliding by. I thought maybe I could motivate Ethan to care about the SAT, just a little, if I climbed into the trenches myself.

“Initially, though, the number of test-prep options left me agog (over a million on Google). My original idea was to try out twelve different methods of test prep the year before Ethan would be taking his first SAT. But as I saw how vast and complicated the realm of SAT prep appeared to be, I kept adding layers to the idea. What was at first simply the notion of taking an official SAT at school with the kids mushroomed into a vow to take the test every time it was offered in 2011 (seven times in all). And I’d try out different locations for each test, which turned out to be a total of five. (I didn’t anticipate the issue of test centers booking up early and ended up having to repeat a few). I wanted to see if the location played any role in the test experience, so I chose schools ranging from an elite private school in the suburbs to an urban public school in the Bronx.

“My journey would start with the first SAT of 2011, on January 22, and Ethan would take his first SAT exactly one year after me–in January of 2012. We’d overlap in our preparation about halfway through the year because (a) juniors take the PSAT in the fall (October of 2011 for Ethan; SAT No. 5 for me), so he’d need to study; and (b) I know my son well enough to realize he does better with some spare runway to build momentum.

“In spite of the escalating nature of the project, I was excited about the ‘study together’ part and assumed that by halfway through the year, with four SAT experiences under my belt, I’d have my bearings and be able to adroitly show my son ‘the SAT ropes.'”

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