Gail Mitchell reveals why her classically educated students perform well on the PSAT.

I have served as guidance counselor for New Covenant Schools in Lynchburg, Virginia, for ten years. In 2001, we had a total of 24 students in grades 9-12. We have now doubled that number, going from 6 or 7 students per grade to 10-15 students per grade (still very small classes by most standards). Yet in those ten years, we have had nine National Merit Commended Scholars and seven National Merit Finalists (with two more Finalists and another Commended Scholar likely to be announced next fall, based on this year’s scores).

We are the only private school in our region that can boast such numbers, and only one very large public school surpasses us in this regard—in number, but certainly not in percentage of a class! My guess is that other classical, Christian schools are having the same success, which begs the question: What is it about classical education that translates so well into high PSAT scores?

The class size certainly has something to do with strong test performance, even during the testing experience itself. There are fewer distractions, less noise, and, therefore, more focus on the task at hand when ten bodies are in a room compared to twenty or more. Students in a small class tend to know each other very well and are very comfortable together in all kinds of situations, including testing. The teacher, too, knows each student’s abilities and needs much better, especially in a school like ours where teachers will have a student in more than one class through the high school years. With teachers able to focus on each of them, students will likely perform better on tests and on class work. I realize I am stating the obvious, but it may not be so clear when applied to the PSAT testing. Unlike larger schools who often put all the students together in a large, impersonal space, such as a cafeteria, for purposes of efficiency, our students take the test with their own class in a familiar classroom. Being in a comfortable, familiar place can have a positive impact on test performance.

Class size alone, however, is not the key to high PSAT scores. Other private schools in our area also have small classes, yet they do not have the track record we do regarding test scores. Classical education itself is the key. For those of you who may not have looked closely at a PSAT
or SAT test in the last few years, the old “Verbal” section is now “Critical Reading.” Students must read passages, not for information, but in order to analyze the author’s themes, viewpoint, context, and writing style. Since all of our humanities classes do the same, the students don’t find this task to be a problem. The Critical Reading section also asks students to define difficult vocabulary words in context. As I told my 10th-grade literature class today, classical schools read the “real stuff,” instead of a condensed or watered-down version. We do use vocabulary lists to familiarize students with the definitions of difficult words, but those lists all come from the books they are reading for the class. Our Great Books curriculum provides students with opportunities to master an adult-level vocabulary early on and to understand the different connotations of words as well.

The same can be said for the Writing section of the PSAT. We write—a lot—in all our classes, so students have many opportunities to develop their writing abilities. The books we read come into play in the writing component, too. The best way (in my opinion) to become a good writer is to read the very best that has been written in order to understand how the English language is supposed to sound, instead of the way we normally speak it. The one area where the classical curriculum does not seem to have as positive an effect is in mathematics. Our scores on the Math section of the PSAT are still much higher than the national average, but they aren’t as high as the Critical Reading and Writing sections. This does not mean we aren’t teaching math well; on the contrary, I think our school has an outstanding math program. Math, however, may be a subject that is more difficult for many students to master. We are bombarded with language from the moment we are born. Math, on the other hand, can often seem abstract and detached from everyday life, especially at the high school level and beyond. While it is still our task to help each child maximize his or her abilities—and the classical curriculum is definitely the best way to do that—we must recognize that some of those abilities will have more variation than others.

I end on a cautionary note: The PSAT is given only once a year and must be taken on one specific day. It is not a measure, ultimately, of a student’s intelligence or a school’s success or failure. It is just one test. We should use the information from the PSAT as only one of many means of evaluating what we do—not so we can say we are “better” than other schools, but to reach that goal of guiding our students to become the persons God would have them be.

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