A high SAT score means genius — right?

June 7, 2001
A story in U.S. News and World Reports hit the nail on the head when it spoke of the lackluster "test of tests," the Scholastic Assessment Test or SAT.

The article reports that Richard Atkinson, former head of the National Science Foundation (now president of the University of California) calls for scrapping the SAT as a requirement for undergraduate admissions to UC. It's about time someone in an authoritative position pulled the reins in on this suspicious, nebulous test.

I never took the SAT — and I didn't want to. Colleges in my state didn't require it. Also, I earned a merit scholarship to a nearby community college thanks to graduating second in my class at my rural high school. And community college students who transferred to a full university had to worry more about actual college grades than SAT rankings.

In high school, what little I knew about SAT made me wary. I remember stories about my "big city" cousins studying hard for the exam in their early teens. I felt there was no way for me to compete with other students who could afford special tutoring. Later, I was again reminded of the unfairness of the exam when a colleague, whose school consistently ranked high in national SAT standings, confided that a portion of her junior year focused on the exam. This might be one reason she became a member of the second freshman class at the Naval Academy to include women.

Problem is, as James Popham, professor emeritus at UCLA puts it, the SAT is "a big fuzzball." It doesn't give an accurate picture of the students who will do well in college. And, for years, many have accused it of being racially and socioeconomically biased. One wonders how many inner city or rural school districts can fund SAT prep classes as part of the curriculum.

My own observations are that SAT scores have unintended consequences. When I transferred to an engineering college, I was surprised to see how many juniors still wore their SAT scores as a badge. It was doubly surprising that some who bragged about their SAT scores weren't doing all that well in engineering classes. Often before an exam, some seemed to expect the prof to spoon-feed them answers to mathematical problems. Maybe they got this mentality from the many years of studying the answers first, not really caring to understand the "why" behind them.

I don't mean to imply that all students who do well on the SAT don't study hard, deserve scholarships to prestigious colleges, or ultimately work hard in school. I'm saying that a single test score doesn't indicate who will succeed in college.

Since graduation, I have run into former classmates who still preen at the mention of their high SAT scores. It seems silly, because many of them graduated 20-odd years ago. My friend, who attended the Naval Academy now admits she wasn't really ready for college at the time. She dropped out, got married, started a family, and only then decided she was ready to focus on a college education. She earned a M.S. in physics during her second pregnancy.

The SAT might be a good guide, but it shouldn't be used as a gage to determine who makes the grade for admission to colleges and universities.

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