Testing The Limits
Update: Changes have been made to the SAT that will go into effect in early 2016. I still think the points made in the following essay apply, so I’m keeping it as is.
A friend of mine was recently waitlisted from a college he was all but sure of attending and I was all but sure of him attending. Mind you, this is a good college, but this friend happens to be a bright young man who (without divulging too many details) is a just as much a hard worker, enrolling in challenging courses while working equally hard for his sports team nearly every day and using his athletic gifts to give back to the community, something for which he has been recognized by his school’s National Honor Society. This college did not follow suit, and for what reason I cannot fathom until he tells me about his SAT score. I was, naturally, quite angry.
I can’t really be too pissed off about it, though, without acknowledging where it has gotten me. I have been accepted to the two schools to which I applied relatively early, one of those being the school for which my friend was pining and the other having just given me a scholarship totaling $40,000 over the next four years. I won’t divulge too much information about myself, either, but I can say that my Grade Point Average is lower, my extracurricular and community-service records less stellar, and my achievements overall less significant. Maybe it was my essays that pushed me over the line, but the gap between us is much greater than any I can imagine being due to the difference between essays. No, what it boils down to is what was formerly known as the Scholastic Assessment Test—now just the SAT.
At first that was an acronym for Scholastic Aptitude Test, in some ways a more apt name. Aptitude, as the American Heritage Dictionary defines it, is “an inherent ability, as for learning; a talent.” I’ve always had an aptitude for standardized tests, and thus my scores barely improved after taking SAT classes; the same applies for my aforementioned friend, although he started (and therefore ended) a lot lower. Now, I know there are plenty of people for whom tutoring and classes and the like have been beneficial, and even if they weren’t—oh well, then you should have worked harder!
But work harder for what, exactly? Elizabeth Kolbert, a writer for The New Yorker, is obviously both very skilled prosaically and successful professionally. She has previously worked for The New York Times and written for both the newspaper and magazine; has won a smorgasbord of awards, including the National Magazine Award for Public Interest, the American Association for the Advancement of Science Journalism Award, the National Academies Communication Award, the National Magazine Award for Reviews and Criticism, and a Heinz Award; has received a Lannan Literary Fellowship; and has published two books—her third will be released later this year. She has also written an article about the SAT, discussing both her and another woman’s trouble taking the test, as well as the latter’s extensive preparation for it. That, and the history she describes, is almost as unnerving as the test itself.
That other woman, Debbie Stier, is also the author of The Perfect Score Project: Uncovering the Secrets of the SAT, which is based on her experience. Before her preparation her scores in writing, critical reading, and math, were 610, 680, and 530, respectively; afterwards they improved by 190, 60, and 50, also respectively. This sounds fine and well until one reads about the taxing labor and costs she goes through and incurs in order to reach those scores. And that’s just her highest set of scores, which she attained in the fifth of seven exams she took. No wonder “she ends the project on a note of frustration.”
That frustration must have doubled over when she saw the highest-scored essays, which she deemed “terrible.” How could that be? “A study by an instructor at M.I.T. has shown that success on the SAT essay is closely correlated with length: the more words pile up, the higher the score.” William Strunk, champion of brevity and author of one of the most reputable writing-style guidebooks, The Elements of Style, is rolling in his grave. Kolbert elaborates on her own experience with the essay and following Stier’s advice of “declare, don’t waffle”:
I considered my options. I wanted to argue against the question’s very premise; who can even really say what progress is? Then I realized that everyone else was already scribbling away, so I ditched that idea and went with the obvious: “No pain, no gain.” I ended up writing on the Manhattan Project, despite my misgivings about whether the prospect of nuclear annihilation should count as an advance. When I got to the point of quoting Robert Oppenheimer’s famous line “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds,” I couldn’t remember exactly how it went, and so, heeding Stier’s advice—“Details count; factual accuracy doesn’t”—I made something up.
As anyone who writes professionally or strives to do so knows, the qualities that SAT scorers are looking for are precisely the opposite of the ones that good writing always possesses: lack of depth, accurate ambiguity, and even accuracy itself. These are what many a student knows to be the basis of bullshit. Trust me. I’ve done it myself many a time.
Whether or not the critical reading or mathematics portions better assess the skills one might need in those areas is not clear to me, what is clear is that it does not accurately represent one thing that it is crucial for colleges to know about its applicants: work ethic. After working hard to do well on the test, neither Stier nor my friend saw much improvement. Neither did I, but I honestly did not work that hard on it. That, however, only sharpens the stinging point. For as much as the test is a gauging of “schooling, family background, familiarity with English, and everything else,” as Carl Campbell Brigham, a Princeton professor and the creator of the SAT, admitted it was instead of a test of “native intelligence” (which he first considered it to be), it is just as much so of an aptitude towards these kinds of tests.
As a result, for many, one’s hard work is reflected in his or her SAT score; for many, though, it is not, and just as many get off well without doing much work at all. Ultimately, that work, if it doesn’t pay off, is worth naught, for what use will one get from studying from an SAT prep book that they won’t get at least sevenfold from spending the same amount of time and expending the same amount of effort towards studying for a class? There’s a reason why the academic system is set up the way it is, and although it does have its own problems, its underlying motive is to provide a foundation that prepares people for college and the working world, not for a test that was originally created as a military I.Q. test and later became a civilian I.Q. and then college-admissions test, one whose underlying motives have always been misguided. Or as Kolbert states, “Whatever is at the center of the SAT—call it aptitude or assessment or assiduousness or ambition—the exam at this point represents an accident. It was conceived for one purpose, adapted for another, and somewhere along the line it acquired a hold on American life that nobody ever intended.”
There’s a reason why SAT does not stand for any longer name: the test only exists for its own sake. Kolbert’s reference, “As the Lord put it to Moses, “I am that I am,” uncannily encapsulates the ubiquitous standardized test in two ways: it is to be worshipped by students as if it is a god, lest it wreaks havoc upon one’s collegiate chances; and the skills required to perform well on it are, well, skills that are required only for it. Atheists could say a third point can be deduced, that it is illusionary and drives people to devote their lives for nothing, but I’d rather not provoke anyone who stands on either side of the religious line. Theological debate is very complicated. But the debate over the existence, let alone significance, of the SAT is emphatically not.