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The New SAT: Much Hullabaloo About Nothing

Memo Pad

The New SAT: Much Hullabaloo About Nothing


Helicopter parents, start your engines.

They’re revising the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) again, and you know what that means. More weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth. More complaints about the unfairness of life and of American society. More free-floating status anxiety projected onto adolescent children already uneasy about leaving the parental nest. Or eager to escape it.

Observing the hullabaloo, it’s tempting to wonder if Americans haven’t turned into a nation of crybabies. The New York Times, which covers the politics of college admissions the way Ring Magazine covers welterweight title bouts, published a classic whine by a Maine English professor. “Our children,” she lamented “precious, brilliant, frustrating, confused souls that they are, are more than a set of scores.”

They’re certainly that. Intellectually brilliant, however, most are not. Nor are most of you reading this column, and certainly not the fellow writing it. Using words like “brilliant” when what we mean is “unique” or “beloved” is part of the problem. Regardless of how carefully the College Board revises the exam, only one percent can be squeezed into the 99th percentile.

Hence the intense feelings of fear and unworthiness described by Prof. Jennifer Finney Boylan, who characterizes her own experience of taking the SAT as “a mind-numbing, stress-inducing ritual of torture.” She even complains that it’s like totally unfair to expect American adolescents to be wide-awake and functional at 8:30 AM. Boo-hoo-hoo.

As a girl, Boylan had set her heart upon Wesleyan College. “No single exam, given on a single day,” she complains “should determine anyone’s fate.” God forbid she should have to attend, say, the University of Connecticut or some less prestigious public university. God forbid she should join the Army.

Originally conceived in the 1920s as a means of identifying academically talented individuals whose abilities might otherwise be overlooked, the SAT has done a reasonably good job of doing so over the years.

No, it’s never been perfect. “You can probably think of someone who did poorly on the SAT and yet graduated summa cum laude from college,” concedes David Z. Humbrick, a psychology professor at Michigan State. “You can probably also think of someone who did spectacularly well on the SAT but who flunked out of college after a semester.”

Or who dropped out of college and founded Microsoft, for that matter.

“The SAT is largely a measure of general intelligence,” Humbrick adds. “Scores on the SAT correlate very highly with scores on standardized tests of intelligence, and like IQ scores, are stable across time and not easily increased through training, coaching or practice.”

Intelligence as college professors measure it, that is. A person can have extremely high verbal ability without the slightest mechanical aptitude. We’ve all known math whizzes who are total space cadets. I’ve been around Rhodes Scholarship finalists who can’t tell if a dog is friendly or not.

Gene Lyons

Gene Lyons is a political columnist and author. Lyons writes a column for the Arkansas Times that is nationally syndicated by United Media. He was previously a general editor at Newsweek as wells an associate editor at Texas Monthly where he won a National Magazine Award in 1980. He contributes to Salon.com and has written for such magazines as Harper's, The New York Times Magazine, The New York Review of Books, Entertainment Weekly, Washington Monthly, The Nation, Esquire, and Slate.

A graduate of Rutgers University with a Ph.D. in English from the University of Virginia, Lyons taught at the Universities of Massachusetts, Arkansas and Texas before becoming a full-time writer in 1976. A native of New Jersey, Lyons has lived in Arkansas with his wife Diane since 1972. The Lyons live on a cattle farm near Houston, Ark., with a half-dozen dogs, several cats, three horses, and a growing herd of Fleckvieh Simmental cows.

Lyons has written several books including The Higher Illiteracy (University of Arkansas, 1988), Widow's Web (Simon & Schuster, 1993), Fools for Scandal (Franklin Square, 1996) as well as The Hunting Of The President: The 10 Year Campaign to Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton, which he co-authored with National Memo Editor-in-Chief Joe Conason.

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  1. ps0rjl March 12, 2014

    I think all those tests are too subjective and not worth much. I was a lackluster student in high school who hung out with kids who like me were probably not looked on as college material. NIU was a large university about 20 miles from my parents farm. At first I wanted to go into the army but at the last minute I changed my mind and decided half way through new students week that I would like to go the college. Fortunately my high school grades were good enough to get into college and the Director of Admissions was a friend of the family. I walked into her office and said I wanted to go to college. Within two hours I was a fully enrolled new student. I had no transcripts or test scores to tell how good or bad a student I was. Long story short in four years I walked out of there with a BA when 2/3 of those I started with had dropped out or at least dropped back. Oh when other students complained about having an eight o’clock class, I always took those classes. By the way I lived at home and commuted to school every day. I was up at six and out the door by seven A.M. My point is tests are not always the determiner of whether a student is college material. Sometimes it is the drive of the person.

  2. Kurt CPI March 12, 2014

    First, “Regardless of how carefully the College Board revises the exam, only one percent can be squeezed into the 99th percentile” is likely a mathematical fact that most high school graduates seeking college entry couldn’t explain – which is sad.
    But, I agree with the Lyons’ argued position 100% – quit whining. This is a world of information. Not that it hasn’t been since a literate population became the norm, but today’s work environment is much less about fulfilling repetitive tasks than in decades past. It’s even much less about making decisions based on a fixed input of specific data. Today’s worker is much more likely to be expected to take autonomous initiative – no supervisory input – based on a plethora of information that must be quickly sorted, prioritized, and analyzed as a regular function of their jobs. Not just management jobs, but right down to the virtual nuts and bolts of what have become everyday jobs in IT, data processing, clerical and other office work, sales, … the list goes on and on.

  3. ralphkr March 12, 2014

    Actually, universal entrance exam was promoted in the late 19th Century and the first test (essay only) was administered by the College Entrance Examination Board in 1901. The first multiple choice test was in 1926 which is probably why so many think that was the first test.

  4. RobertCHastings March 18, 2014

    All that such standardized tests can predict is how well an individual will do at taking standardized tests. Other predictors, such as HS GPA, outside activities, clubs, etc. are just as accurate, and just as important. Some colleges are opting out of using standardized test scores altogether, which is one of the smartest moves such colleges could make. Restricting acceptance to those HS students who ONLY do well on the SATs results in allowing some poor students to enter college while much better ones who are not good test takers are NOT given the chance.


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