An SAT preparatory course in Rockville, Md. in 2013. (Maddie Meyer/The Washington Post)
Columnist

Many testing critics are delighted that two-thirds of all U.S. four-year colleges and universities will be ignoring or not requiring SAT or ACT results in 2021. But Andy Mayer thinks those who want to discard such tests are overlooking their worth in a vast array of learning opportunities for people who missed something in school.

Mayer has been paid for many years to prepare students for those and some other exams. I used to know him as the brilliant night researcher at The Washington Post who saved me often when I was chasing a story.

He represents a much-overlooked factor in learning. He is among what we might call auxiliary educators — test prep teachers, tutors, work colleagues, corporate trainers, bosses, friends, YouTube videos, even parents and siblings. They are everywhere, mostly ignored by educational research. We call on them when we bump into something we really, really, REALLY need to know. Mayer is one of many auxiliaries who don’t get much respect.

Classroom teachers try to set high standards, but it’s a heavy lift. Their students are young and often unmotivated. Their school systems lack the political support to insist that students master the basics. Schools don’t have the funds to make their days long enough to get that done.

“I stress nine different types of essays they can see on the SAT,” Mayer said, plus “give them word vocabulary quizzes weekly and homework for the same weekly, plus weekly homework for essay writing and preparation, including focus on editing and grammar usage.” Colleges requiring such tests give Mayer a precious advantage over classroom teachers — motivation.

The importance of auxiliary educators goes way beyond the algebra homework your mom made you do or the grammar rules you never mastered until the SAT required them. (Mayer says grammar is not emphasized so much anymore, even in that test.)

I often forget the many vital lessons I learned, often free, from generous people outside any classroom. My wife taught me basic cooking when I was in my 20s. The Post’s longtime political guru Dan Balz showed me how to use a laptop when I was in my 30s. A patient newsroom administrator, Bridget Roeber, introduced me to the Internet when I was in my 50s. My son Peter taught me how to hit a golf ball, and my son Joe showed me how to promote a book when I was in my 60s.

Mothers and fathers are on top of that list of unsung educators. Our disdain for what they do is summed up by a term we use for those who care most about learning: helicopter parents. We say they push their children too much, annoy teachers with suggestions and won’t let their kids relax and enjoy life.

Here are the results of a 2007 study of such people by the National Survey of Student Engagement. Researchers polled students at 24 colleges and universities who said their parents were often in contact with them and intervened on their behalf. The study said those students “reported higher levels of engagement and more frequent use of deep learning activities” — such as after-class discussions with professors, intensive writing exercises and independent research — than students with less-involved parents.

So bless all of you who are helping us learn, even if we don’t appreciate it. I have never liked the SAT or the ACT. The former frightened me horribly when I was a sensitive 17-year-old. But Mayer has convinced me that they play a useful role in our quest for enlightenment.

I wonder how our schools are going to recover from the slump they were in long before the pandemic. I see the college-level Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and Cambridge International programs as still strong and growing motivators of deeper learning. But they don’t yet reach the majority of high school students in any meaningful way.

The SAT and the ACT have long been dismissed as too stressful, too expensive and too shallow. Yet they nudge many people into understanding more than they did before.

Learning is important. We ought to make sure everyone has a chance to do it, even if it costs money, time and maybe even some sleep.