SUNDAY MAGAZINE

Get SAT go

`Try and get 1,600' ... . Just as children in India burn the midnight oil to get into a premier engineering or a medical college, a similar trend can be seen in Asian homes in this part of the U.S., writes S. MUTHIAH.

SILICON VALLEY SOJOURN

It's not exactly fun and games for these Asian children.

It's not exactly fun and games for these Asian children.  

HE'S just four and he's obsessed with drawing MAPS! He won't stir out of the house, much to the exasperation of his parents, till he's finished drawing one of the route they plan to take to school, office, a restaurant, what have you. If he decides he's "not busy" and will spare you the time to talk about you and the rest of the family, he'll inform you that you are from India and that's in Asia, he's in North America while his friend Manuel has come from South America, and that his Chitthi is in Australia and his uncle is going to Denmark in Europe.

It's obvious that his pre-school has taught him, and his peers, worlds I never knew at his age and has to lay firm foundations for the stress ahead in the Silicon Valley school system that loudly proclaims itself to be one of the best in the United States. Driving this vehicle of excellence, where competition and challenges are to be met in every class, are student bodies like those at this pre-school. Here I'd be surrounded by Chinese — and a few other East Asian — parents and their wards who constitute 80 per cent of the enrolment, and I'd have to search for that four-year-old and his fellows from India (and a few from South Asia) who are 10 per cent of the enrolment, and would barely spot a salad bowl of Whites and Hispanics from several countries — including the U.S.

While this four-year-old enjoys himself in a play atmosphere geared to help in the acquisition of knowledge, his mother's immediate concern, like those of most other young mothers in the Valley, is what is going to happen next year when he and his friends will have to head for elementary school. Towns in Silicon Valley are zoned and each one has a good elementary school. But some towns have a "lottery" elementary school or two as well — and that is what parents aiming for the best, target for their children. To gain admission to a "lottery" school, parents send in applications of intent for their wards and then wait in hope for their children to be short-listed for a test. Based on the results, a few score children are selected for each "lottery" school. And here they get a better, and more rigorously pursued, grounding that will give them an advantage in middle and high school where the pressures are even greater to perform — as the ultimate goal of most Silicon Valley parents, especially Asian ones, is to see that their children make it to the best colleges in the country. The only alternative to this system are the numerous expensive private schools of excellence that have classes from the elementary level up.

Harvard and other Ivy League colleges "do not accept average kids", says a Saratoga High School teacher. Writes a teenager from Saratoga High to the local San Jose Mercury News: "There is a competitive atmosphere in school. We are all competing for that spot in Harvard, the Massacheusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Stanford and all those other schools that accept only the best of the best. The desire to succeed is hard-wired into our overworked brains."

Saratoga High is considered to be one of the outstanding schools in the country. Most of the high schools in the Valley are pretty much in the same category; certainly they are among the best in California which is rated as having one of the better school system in the U.S. The pressure for students to succeed, the pressure parents, especially Asians, put on their children to prepare themselves to get into the best schools in the country — virtually guaranteeing high-salary employment on graduation — is enormous. It is a pressure that increases as realisation dawns that straight `A's, Advanced Placement and Honours classes, volunteer work and representing the school in a sporting or other extracurricular activity is no longer enough. What is needed is to come as close as possible to that magic perfect score, 1,600, in the nationwide Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT).

To ensure those straight `A's and SAT scores as close to the perfect, the Valley is now home to a host of franchised coaching institutions like Princetone Review, where an afternoon's SAT preparation class costs $900! Then there are tutors who charge $250 an hour to help students to reach the SAT peak. Says a Silicon Valley parent, "SAT preparation is one of the fastest growing industries in the Valley. But it meets the needs of families where every member is stressed till their son or daughter makes it to a top college."

SAT, administered in the U.S. from 1926, is a two-part test of verbal and math ability. From next year, it will have a third 800 mark part, grammar and essay. Fifty years ago, I saw students take SAT in their stride in their last year in high school. Even 10 years ago, SAT, according to many a parent of the time, "was no big deal; it called for study, but not to the exclusion of all else". But in the last decade, it has become all-important with both parents and students, especially in the Valley, as enrolment of Asian students rises from the 25 per cent mark to 50 per cent in high schools and their parents push them into what they hope will be a better future. Nowadays, SAT preparation in some cases begins as early as the second year in a four-year high school system,

I'd heard it all before at home, where preparing for the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) and engineering and medical college exams had spawned a major industry to meet the demands of parents determined to see that their wards made it to the best institutions. I had never thought it would be a scene replicated in the U.S. The only difference from the Indian scene, it was pointed out to me by an Asian Indian parent, is that "these children pretend to be carefree and laugh and kid around a lot. But once they get home, it's like in India ... . hours of homework and fretting about whether others in class are doing better."

This kind of pressure on students has resulted in a dark side with several unhappy incidents reported in the Valley school system early this year. Eight computer-savvy students at Saratoga High hacked into a teacher's computer and stole tests and answers. A few days later, one of those suspended was arrested for stealing from a chemistry lab material that could be used to create an explosive. Students at Cupertino Middle School went further. Twelve of them drew up a plan to burn down their school before an exam. When one of these 12 to 14 year olds lost his nerve, the plot was foiled and arrests followed. In schools just outside the Valley, there were arrests following, in one instance, a plan by two boys to open fire on teachers and classmates and, in the other, threats against teachers and students were posted on the Internet by a student.

A Chinese co-president of Saratoga High's Parent-Teacher-Student Association wondered after the incidents in the school whether she was doing the right thing by her children by pushing them so hard. The principal, echoing this view, added, "Perhaps we should insist more on integrity and all-round performance and less on grades. But I, like every parent, first ask a child, `How did you do in that test?' Grades are what we are most concerned with". Not pushing a child or asking about his grades are concessions that I don't think Asian parents in the Valley would readily go along with; both parents and children sacrifice too much every day in search of the golden fleece — that sheepskin from a leading university.

In this determined quest, Asian Indians are even more focussed than the Chinese if you draw conclusions from how little Indians participate in the wider school scene than even the Chinese. It may not be the best yardstick to draw conclusions from, but I can't help feel that the sports pages do sometimes reflect some home truths. The results of inter-school matches in the Valley show several East Asians and Hispanics doing well for their schools in soccer (football), basketball, women's basketball and soccer (perhaps America's fastest growing sport) and swimming. The only Indian names to be found are, and rarely at that, in tennis. Their focus is the classroom — and exams.

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