My daughter takes the SATs for the first time next month. She's already taken the PSATs twice and two SAT IIs. She'll take more SAT IIs in June, and will probably take the SAT I again in October. The fact that she can keep all this straight should qualify her for entrance into any college in the land. But it doesn't work that way.
SAT scores range from a low of 200 to a perfect 800 on each part of the test - math and verbal - for a total of between 400 and 1600.
These numbers have a mythic value in our society. At college basketball games, when the home team learns that an opposing player got a very low score, the fans will often jeer at him and hold up signs saying things like, "How do you spell SAT?" Some people brag about their high scores 30 or 40 years after they have taken the test. Or if they got a perfect 800, they might be really obnoxious about it, and instead of saying the number, declare, "I don't want to brag, so let's just say I did well. Extremely well."
The specter of the tests causes anxiety in both students and parents. Kids hear about other kids who are rejected from colleges even though they are straight-A students who play three varsity sports, are master welders, and counsel lepers on Sundays. Apparently, they just didn't score high enough on their SATs.
So, an entire SAT preparation industry has sprung up. There are SAT courses, SAT tutors, and SAT preparation books. I wouldn't be surprised if there were courses to help students do well in their SAT preparation courses. If young people spent as much time actually learning about things as they do preparing for these tests, we would have a much more educated population.
It's undeniable that this preparation helps students get higher scores on these tests. What isn't clear is what these tests really measure. A University of California study of 78,000 freshmen from 1996 through 1999 found that SAT scores were among the least useful tools in predicting success in college.
The SATs were introduced over 75 years ago. The country had just witnessed the Scopes "monkey" trial, movies were silent, and penicillin hadn't been invented yet. Carl C. Brigham came up with the SATs after concluding that American education was declining and would continue to decline "as the racial mixture becomes more and more extensive." It doesn't seem particularly bold to suggest that perhaps a 75-year-old innovation might not be perfect for today's world.
I decided to put the test to the test, and gave myself a "real SAT" from one of the preparation books. The result was startling. My math score was so low it wouldn't get me into one of those colleges that advertises on the radio. If I were playing basketball against your team, you'd be taunting me, and not just because I can't go to my left. I determined that my low score was the result of one of the following factors:
A) I was never good at math, and now I'm even worse.
B) Even though it said "Number 2," my pencil was actually a "Number 3."
C) My answer sheet was improperly aligned, so although I knew all the right answers, I marked them down incorrectly.
D) The test is completely bogus and doesn't measure anything accurately.
Based on what I learned from the preparation books, the first thing I did was eliminate A because it couldn't be true. Then, I selected the most likely answer – D.
My experience is just one more reason that we should consider examining our dependence on SAT scores very carefully. And I say this even though when it came to the verbal test, well, I don't want to brag, but let's just say I did well. Extremely well.
E-mail your questions and comments to Lloyd Garver
Lloyd Garver has written for many television shows, ranging from "Sesame Street" to "Family Ties" to "Frasier." He has also read many books, some of them in hardcover.
By Lloyd Garver