Chapter 4. SAT – The Reveal

(This is the concluding essay of a series of four describing my late in life SAT retest.  The other are filed under the category of SAT experience.)

It has been one month since I took the SATs and while awaiting my scores I have been interested to learn more about its history.  It turns out that the SAT test was an outgrowth of the IQ tests that were first developed by Binet in 1905.  France had recently made a commitment to offer education to all of its children and the test was designed to identify children with significant learning disabilities so that they could receive special education.  In other words, the IQ test was designed as a way to extend educational opportunities to everyone, as opposed as a technique of identifying elite students.  Additionally, Binet stressed the diversity of intelligence and the certain impact of environment. 

In this country, those caveats were largely ignored; the IQ test was initially used on a large scale by the military before WWI to identify potential officers.  The SAT perked along at a low level until it received a big boost from the Korean War when the government announced that college deferments for active service would be based on SAT scores.  The idea was that the education of future scientists who could contribute to the war effort should not be interrupted.  Some soldiers were certainly assigned to units reflecting known skills – i.e. doctors served in the medical corps – but this program deferred soldiers based on their potential worth (judged by their SAT scores) to a potential job that could be potentially useful in a future war effort.  The bottom line was that you didn’t want the next Albert Einstein killed in a trench somewhere.

One of the early champions of the SAT was a Harvard dean named Henry Chauncey.  He was infatuated with standardized testing in general, and thought that the SAT could be a great leveler that would serve to extend elite educational opportunities to those outside the usual students drawn from East coast boarding schools.  His belief in the objectivity of standardized testing seems hopelessly naïve, given the obvious flaws in every step of the logic train: 1) that you can define intelligence; 2) that you can produce a number that would reflect that intelligence; 3) that you can determine this number by a multiple choice test focused on math and vocabulary; and 4) that the test produces consistent results across genders, cultures and ethnicities. 

One of the persistent criticisms is the inherent bias in the test, particularly in the reading sections, where questions ask for interpretation of the dreary reading passages.  The SAT has to include questions with a range of difficulty in order to distinguish the bright from the average mind.  One way to introduce difficulty is simply to make both the questions and the answers more ambiguous.  And there is bias in the way the SAT decides which questions are easy or difficult.  In every SAT, there is a section which experiments with  new questions; these questions do not count toward the final score.  A question is considered difficult if only those students who get a high score on the “real” part of the SAT answer the experimental questions correctly.  Therefore, this circular definition reinforces any bias that favors students who have undergone coaching who presumably are scoring higher; these students are the final arbiters of what is considered difficult.  The other simple way to introduce difficulty is to just make the test longer so that not everyone can finish it – so at this point the SAT is testing speed, which is an interesting criteria for aptitude. 

And then of course there is the subjectivity in grading the essay section.  The SAT essay is graded from a low of 1 to 6.  Grade 6 is defined as an essay with “clear and consistent mastery with an effective and insightful point of view.” Grade 5 is defined as “reasonably consistent mastery with a effective (but not insightful) point of view, and so on.  The SAT states that their scorers are rigorously trained on sample tests that some sort of expert committee has judged as 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, etc.  While it is probably possible to come to some agreement on the extremes, the 6’s and the 1’s, the consistent discrimination of the intermediate zone, i.e. 2-5, where most essays will lie, just has to be more problematic.  I am just not buying the SATs breezy assurance of objectivity and the cross checking of scores among multiple scorers.   Another criticism is that good writing depends on thoughtful consideration of a topic and the ability to revise, two aspects that are clearly not part of the SAT essay, where a topic is sprung upon students who are writing with 25 minute shotguns pressed into their temples.  Finally, the SAT makes a point of stating that facts are not checked.  Therefore a student can cheerfully state that the Civil War began in 1842 without getting dinged.

The College Board’s steadfast assertion that the SAT cannot be coached is self-serving and silly.  Prep courses like the Princeton Review make millions of dollars in training students to think like the SAT so that they can answer the ambiguous questions.  In fact thoroughly prepped students can often answer the reading comprehension questions without even reading the passages.  The Princeton Review is absolutely gleeful about outsmarting the SAT; its president tells its students, “The SAT is bullshit, let’s blow these assholes away.”   

My indignation has risen as I have gathered more information on this cruel and stigmatizing hoax, and I would love to lambast the SAT.  But my message would be more convincing if delivered from a position of power, for example, an 800 ft. mountain.  So brings me to the question of how I did, and this is the first question that everyone asks when they hear of this experiment.  Truthfully, I don’t really want to know, but this is a story, and the story needs to have an end.  I can foresee several possible scenarios:

1.  The test is totally invalidated since I made additional errors in gridding in my name or number of the testing center on the score sheet.

2.  When I skipped those annoying math questions, my answers got misaligned, resulting in totally random answers.

3.  I could have held my own with middling SAT scores, which I could claim was a satisfying result, but these results would also feed into the conceit of the SAT who could claim that they had a test-retest reliability that extended over decades.

4.   I could have hit it out of the park.  From this vantage point, it would be a pleasure to totally dismiss and diss the SAT.    

5.  I could totally bomb out

And of these scenarios, which would I feel comfortable in sharing?  I am generally pretty agreeable about humiliating myself, but I think that there are some statistics that people feel more private about – for example, nobody goes around asking or telling people their IQs, which are not far from the SAT.  I found two interviews where the guest expert on the SAT was asked what his scores were; one said around 1500, which of course is a very high score and made me think he was pretty cocky, and the other said that it was a private matter, which made me think that maybe he was ashamed of his scores.  I went into this project thinking that it was just a lark, but now, with the scores imminent, I have to admit that I do have some ego riding on this.  I still recall with disappointment my high school scores, and perhaps I have put myself at risk by secretly trying to make amends.  It is disenheartening to realize that your high school intelligence – either under or over achievers –  is pegged to standardized test scores.  Underachievers have the gift of untapped potential and can always improve if they just pull it together, whereas the word overachiever has a negative whiff to it.  We overachievers (not test undertakers) are operating without the safety net of untapped potential and can only go down.  At any moment Toto could go skittering across the floor and pull the curtain away revealing that I was no Wizard, I was just an overachiever and that my nice plump GPA was a fluky sham.   

My friend Dick said, “Let’s make this interesting, I’m willing to put a little money on the over/under.  I bet you get under 600 on the math due to disuse atrophy, and over 700 on the reading.  Well I can triumphantly report that he lost the bet.  Reading:  Wow an 800!  Math: I got 48 out of 56 correct, which put me in the 90th percentile, which translated to a score of 680.  This leaves me in awe of the students who get 800.  Writing: 650.  It looks like they hated my essay, and my scorn for Standard Written English did me in.  

So what have I learned?  Well one thing the SAT has taught me is that every good essay must have a concluding paragraph.  So here it is.  I could not find one redeeming factor about the SAT.  It does not test aptitude – how could a timed, multiple choice test possibly – it is not a great leveler, due to the persistent cultural biases, and the ability to prep – and it is not a strong predictor of college success.  The validity of the predictive value of the test is its raison d’être, but the data only shows that the SAT test predicts a small fraction (8-15%) of the variability in freshman test scores.  This means that about 88% of the time the SAT results are no more predictive of first year grades than a role of the dice, and whatever predictive value the test does have, it dissipates by sophomore year.  At yet every year, Americans spend more than $100 million dollars on the test itself.    So why do we persist in this folly?  For one, colleges get the scores for free, but if you asked them if they would budget 100 million dollars for SAT information, they would surely decline.  Secondly, they can use the SAT scores to confirm their status as an elite institution and possibly attract more highly qualified candidates.  Finally, the SAT sucks them in by giving them additional demographic information about their students.  For me, it was an interesting experience and I am pleased with my scores, but if it were not so expensive I would be tempted to take the Princeton review and “blow those assholes away.”

The missing words in the following poem are anagrams (like post, stop, spot).  The number of dashes indicates the number of letters.  One of the anagrams will rhyme with either the proceeding or following line.  Your job is to solve the missing words based on the contex of the poem.  Scroll down for answers.

Reasons Why the SAT is Bullshit

It is a test that is culturally biased, stigmatizing and —– 

Especially since it doesn’t really predict how well you do in school,

When everyone practices and preps hoping for Ivy League success,

The most likely result is an bleeding —– from anxiety and  stress.

Only the ETS benefits, rubbing their greedy hands with unfettered glee

As they rake in filthy —– from students’ admission fees. 







Answers: cruel, ulcer, lucre

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