Scholastic Aptitude Torment

Upon hearing about the College Board’s forthcoming revamp of the Scholastic Aptitude Test—otherwise known as the SAT—I was all ready to let loose a vitriolic broadside against the standardized college preparatory exam and the ways it ruins the final two years of your high school career.  That is, when it doesn’t also ruin the rest of your life along with them.

But then I stumbled upon an op-ed piece in the New York Times, titled, “Save Us From the SAT,” whose author, Jennifer Finney Boylan, essentially makes all my best points for me (and more interestingly, at that).

“The SAT is a mind-numbing, stress-inducing ritual of torture,” Boylan writes, with only the mildest of exaggeration.  “The College Board can change the test all it likes, but no single exam, given on a single day, should determine anyone’s fate.  The fact that we have been using this test to perform exactly this function for generations now is a national scandal.”

Boylan goes on to recount her own horror story of taking the infernal test when she was a high school junior—a drama that has her coming this close to lodging a fatally low score as a result of accidentally skipping one line of bubbles on the answer sheet.  (She realized her mistake with precious seconds to spare.)

On this, actually, I can do Boylan one better:  The year my own graduating class was subjected to the SAT, the College Board’s grading machines threw a fit and wound up miscalculating thousands of students’ scores, some by several hundred points in either direction.

College Board ultimately spotted, acknowledged and corrected its error, but it took five months to do so, and not before untold scores of college hopefuls (including several I knew personally) were put under the false impression that their dream school was suddenly out of reach, leading some to forego even applying to institutions they otherwise should’ve had every reason to think would accept them.

And so you had the fortunes of multitudes of students greatly disrupted or utterly destroyed, all because of some inane automated clerical error.

To Boylan’s point:  Even when scored correctly, why should one test carry so much weight and be able to inflict so much academic carnage along the way?  And if it’s true that actual college admissions officials do not take SAT scores as seriously as students are made to think, then why are students made to think it?

In the memorable phrasing of Captain Lionel Mandrake in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, “I would say, sir, that there was something dreadfully wrong somewhere.”

As outlined extensively by Todd Balf in the New York Times Magazine, the point of the SAT is to predict a high school student’s potential in college-level courses, and in a manner that can be fairly applied to every student in America.  The proposed changes, which are more dramatic than in the most recent face-lift in 2005, are a response to the College Board’s conclusion that the exam, in its current form, is neither fair nor a particularly accurate gauge of collegiate success.  The SAT disadvantages poor students, who cannot afford private tutors, and has shown not to correlate with one’s college GPA nearly as much as one’s high school grades do.

In point of fact—as a friend tartly put it years ago—the SAT is little more than a test of one’s ability to take the SAT.

I know this to be true because I had a private tutor of my own, and I can infer with high certainty that those sessions inflated my final scores to levels I would not have attained on my own.  Whether my “natural” SAT grades would have shut me out of my eventual school of choice, I have no idea.  That the mere fact of my parents’ relative wealth enhanced my academic and career prospects before I even picked up a pencil—well, the words “national scandal” could hardly be more germane.

To be sure, the fact that poor folks must often work exponentially harder than rich folks merely to keep pace in America is not solely a problem for the College Board.  It’s a problem for everyone, and has been since the dawn of the republic itself.

One of the finer moments of the new Mitt Romney documentary Mitt comes when the titular candidate acknowledges how his father, George, took a lifetime to reach the economic standing to which Mitt himself began.  It reminds us that any so-called “level playing field” in the United States is an aspiration, not a reality.

The proposed SAT tweaks—particularly the increased emphasis on logic and argument in justifying one’s answers—will probably leave us with a superior product than we currently have.

But they are still no match for the most sensible and just of the College Board’s options, which is to just get rid of the bloody thing once and for all.

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